American families gathered around the Thanksgiving table last week, with some of us combining traditional dinners with Hanukkah feasts. But one quiet group was left out of the national celebration. The nearly 49 million Americans, including nearly 16 million children, living in food insecure households struggled to afford the food they need. These families didn’t have the luxury of choosing between apple or pumpkin pie this holiday season but continue to face choices about paying for groceries or rent, heat, electricity, medicine or clothing for their children as they do each month – choices no family should have to make in our nation with the largest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the world.
Congress will be choosing how many of these desperate families and children in need to cut from life-giving and life-sustaining federal nutrition programs. In the middle of this season of gratitude for plenty, Congress has put the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, often called food stamps) on the chopping block while leaving largely intact subsidies for rich farmers and even some non-farmers.
With the decision deadline just weeks away, Congress is working to bridge the gap between two dramatically different Farm Bill proposals that both include unjust funding cuts for SNAP. The Senate Bill cuts $4 billion from SNAP over 10 years while the House bill slashes more than $40 billion – denying food to as many as 6 million people, including children, seniors, and veterans. The House proposal would also drop 210,000 children from school meals and cost our economy 55,000 jobs in the first year alone.
Any agreed upon Farm Bill cuts to the already meager SNAP food benefits will come on top of the $11 billion cut over the next three years that already began on November 1 and affected every single SNAP recipient. This recent cut was equivalent to a week’s worth of meals for a 9-year-old. SNAP benefits now average a mere $1.40 per person per meal. Imagine preparing your family Thanksgiving meal on that budget.
SNAP lifted 2.2 million children out of poverty in 2012 and provided benefits to more than 46 million Americans on average every month, including more than 22 million, or more than one in four, children. SNAP was a life saver for millions of families in need during the recent recession and still sluggish recovery. Nearly three-quarters of SNAP households are families with children. Any additional cuts will take desperately needed food away from many vulnerable children and adults.
At a time when child poverty remains at a record high, and when three-quarters of our nation’s teachers report students who routinely show up to school hungry and half report hunger to be a serious problem in their classrooms, what kind of political leaders could for one minute consider cutting children’s food assistance while protecting subsidies for rich farmers?
Hunger and malnutrition have devastating consequences for children and have been linked to low birth weight and birth defects, obesity, mental and physical health problems, and poorer educational outcomes. SNAP cushions these threats and yields a strong return on investment. Children who benefit from SNAP are less likely to be in poor health, experience fewer hospitalizations, and are less likely to have developmental and growth delays than those with similar incomes denied the program. A recent study found that needy children who received food assistance before age five were in better health as adults. Specifically, the girls studied were more likely to complete more schooling, earn more money, and not rely on safety net programs as adults.
Adults who care and have common and economic sense would strengthen and not cut this critical lifeline for children. Though Thanksgiving Day has passed, it is not too late for those of us blessed with enough or too much food to show our gratitude for living in a wealthy country where we can take action and urge our political leaders to put hungry children before rich farmers. Let us offer a simple grace of thanks:
God, we thank You for this food
for the hands that planted it
for the hands that tended it
for the hands that harvested it
for the hands that prepared it
for the hands that provided it
and for the hands that served it.
And we pray for those without enough food
in Your world and in our land of plenty.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information, go to www.childrensdefense.org.