Close call: Recent fears over loss of food aid highlight need in WNC

MAY I HELP YOU?: Vanessa Howe, a regular MANNA HelpLine volunteer, answers a call. Through the HelpLine, Howe helps families across Western North Carolina get access to food through Food and Nutrition Service (food stamps) applications and referring people to MANNA’s partner pantry network.
MAY I HELP YOU?: Vanessa Howe, a regular MANNA HelpLine volunteer, answers a call. Through the HelpLine, Howe helps families across Western North Carolina get access to food through Food and Nutrition Service (food stamps) applications and referring people to MANNA’s partner pantry network. Photo courtesy of MANNA FoodBank

A state budget is not often associated with a fear for livelihood, but in Western North Carolina, where food insecurity issues continue to deepen, a provision put forth this spring by the North Carolina Senate struck a menacing chord with many. After the budget proposal was announced in May, news outlets across the state warned that, if it were approved, more than 130,000 North Carolinians might lose access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

In the end, the state’s SNAP recipients dodged a bullet as the contentious section was ultimately omitted before the bill was ratified. But the narrow escape led many to question what the future holds for those facing food insecurity in North Carolina.

According to a 2015 survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, North Carolina is the eighth most food-insecure state in the nation. That study also found that one in six families in the state struggles to put food on the table — up from the previous year when North Carolina ranked ninth on the list. Bringing it closer to home, the Asheville metropolitan area is even more needy, with one in five residents facing food insecurity, 35 percent of whom are children, according to a 2010-2011 report by the Food Research & Action Center.

A section of N.C. Senate Bill 257 would have prevented the state Department of Health and Human Services from allowing “categorical eligibility, unless expressly required by federal law.” Federal law covers only those earning less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level and who use other assistance programs — meaning that nearly 133,000 North Carolinians, including 55,000 children, would have lost access to food assistance had the bill passed with that provision intact.

“Categorical eligibility is a provision that 38 of 50 states in the U.S. use to establish access to SNAP benefits,” explains Hannah Randall, CEO of MANNA FoodBank. “What it means is that if you are eligible for certain poverty alleviation programs, then it streamlines the process for you to get SNAP benefits, allows your kids to get free lunch in school programs and generally approves you for everything else.”

Bracing for impact

One of the bill’s primary sponsors and loudest defenders was Senator Ralph Hise, whose constituents in Polk, Mitchell, McDowell, Madison, Rutherford and Yancey counties include a total of only 2,410 residents eligible for SNAP — just 1.3 percent of his district. Even so, MANNA sees enough demand in Hise’s district to have distributed 2,615,547 pounds of food in five of the six counties in 2016 alone.

FOR THE KIDS: Volunteer Chris Skoczynski helps fill Summer Packs with food to support MANNA's efforts to fight childhood hunger in Western North Carolina. An ill-fated provision in the state's recent budget proposal would have ended federally funded food assistance for 55,000 North Carolina children.
FOR THE KIDS: Volunteer Chris Skoczynski helps fill Summer Packs with food to support MANNA’s efforts to fight childhood hunger in Western North Carolina. An ill-fated provision in the state’s recent budget proposal would have ended federally funded food assistance for 55,000 North Carolina children.

The bill was also sponsored by Senator Kathy Harrington, who represents Gaston County, home to one of the state’s largest populations of SNAP recipients. The N.C. DHHS reports that more than 2,800 people qualify for relief in her district, with 37 percent of those being children — the highest percentage of children benefitting from SNAP in North Carolina. 

Xpress attempted to contact both Hise and Harrington for comment, but neither had responded to requests at press time. In a May interview with Raleigh media outlet WRAL, Hise said that automatically qualifying families for SNAP because they’ve been approved for another program opens the door for applicants to receive food assistance based solely on income without the evaluation of assets that is otherwise required.

He cites as an example North Carolina’s childcare subsidy service, which only considers household income related to the state’s median income and does not take assets into account. “You’ve got a family of four making $40,000 who can’t qualify [for SNAP] because their children are school-aged, but you’ve got another family that maybe makes more, but who qualifies for childcare subsidies and therefore qualifies for food stamps as well. What we are eliminating is that fact that another program automatically qualifies you for food stamps,” Hise told the station.

Other than MANNA, which serves 16 WNC counties, there are seven other food banks in North Carolina. Each of the state’s 100 counties has access to a food bank, but as Randall observes, a sudden, drastic increase in demand for services — which could result from a statewide loss or reduction of SNAP benefits — could have a ruinous outcome. “I think we can safely say that that would be a serious, serious problem in our country,” she says.

Kara Irani, director of marketing and communications for MANNA, says WNC experiences a deeper and more localized conundrum. “We have a unique socio-economic storm in Western North Carolina, with lack of jobs, lack of public transportation, lack of affordable housing, lack of livable wage, and those things are really challenging,” she explains. “But we continue to work with different community leaders and industries, for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, as well as local governments to help people understand the connections in all of these issues together. Because of that, we are seeing some progress in people’s understanding of the issues that contribute to this big issue of poverty.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator shows that North Carolinians must earn at least $14.42 per hour to provide food, housing, healthcare, transportation and basic living expenses for a family. The numbers are even more grim for families living in Buncombe County, where a single parent of two children would have to make $27.62 per hour to make ends meet, and where even $9 an hour would be considered poverty wages. According to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2016 more than 20,300 WNC residents received SNAP assistance, nearly 7,000 of whom were children.

The high price of helping

Getting sustenance to WNC families in need can be extremely costly. In 2016, MANNA distributed over 16 million pounds of food, including fresh produce, using an army of  volunteers through 222 partner agencies. Although nearly 70 percent of that food was donated and the vast majority of the labor was done by volunteers, the nonprofit still spent $5 million on operating expenses for food distribution last year alone.

The SNAP program relies on a well-established distribution model to provide food relief to those in need: grocery stores. If a significant number of low-income WNC households lost their SNAP benefits and MANNA faced a massive increase in demand, the nonprofit would be forced to re-evaluate and restructure the distribution network that it has worked over a decade to develop, says Irani. This would be an overhaul of immense proportions for MANNA, yet the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that SNAP funding equates to only 2 percent of the national budget, and every dollar spent for the program generates nearly $2 in economic activity, according to Moody’s Analytics.

Randall is uncertain why cuts to SNAP would even be brought up in a state budget proposal. “It actually wouldn’t have affected the state budget whatsoever,” she says. “It is a federally funded program. So that is a big part of why we were so concerned about it — it would be even more taxing on the local county health and human services departments that would have to be processing all of that.”

Food stamps programs, which are used by one in seven Americans, typically on a one-time-only basis and for an average of about seven months , are funded through the U.S. Farm Bill, which is up for renegotiation in 2018. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, lawmakers for both parties have supported tying food stamp funding to farm subsidies. “That’s one way that food stamp funding has continued to receive bipartisan support,” says Irani. “Because you can’t cut food stamps without cutting farmers’ subsidies.”

Irani stresses that the funding for food stamps hasn’t been a political issue since the farm bill was introduced in the throes of the Great Depression, and that it has been a major economic relief for struggling Americans ever since. “One of the things that food stamps do is allow people to live normal lives,” she says. The majority of people who use SNAP, Irani notes, are working full-time jobs or spend their time caring for someone at home while another family member works. But many food pantries are only open once a week and for extremely limited hours — especially volunteer-run organizations in rural areas — making it nearly impossible to reach much-needed food aid. “It means that if you are working, you may not be able to access that food at all.”

Narrow escape

Some argue that it should not be the government’s job to worry about food relief, that feeding those who are struggling should be left to churches and nonprofits. But Randall points out that such an approach would be costlier than funding food stamps and would prove even more taxing on volunteer-run outposts that are already stretched to the limit.

In 2016, MANNA harnessed the efforts of more than 6,200 unduplicated volunteers, an already staggering number that would have to swell drastically to accommodate an increase in need due to lack of access to SNAP. Randall estimates that a local church food pantry would have to increase its distribution tenfold to satisfy the surge of need caused by a cut like the one proposed in SB 257.

Fortunately, the proposed SB 257 food aid cuts never transpired. By the time the bill was ratified in late June, the controversial provision had been removed in an amendment by the N.C. House of Representatives. Provisions were also added for a $600,000 one-time stimulus to increase access to SNAP for seniors and a $250,000 investment to maintain funding for small retailers who make fruits and veggies available in food deserts. But social media banter suggests that a call for measures that would restructure access to food stamps may still be active among the ranks of the state legislature.

“We are really only here to support people that are already supporting themselves, because that is really all that food stamps cover,” Irani says. “A big piece of that is having people recognize that as much as we want to say that we can all pull ourselves up by our own boot straps, it is not realistic. We really can’t pull ourselves up without a network that helps support us in other ways. We all pay into this system, and we should all be able to access it when there is a need.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com

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