Volunteers from Bertschi School bag beans with Northwest Harvest. • Courtesy Photo
Volunteers from Bertschi School bag beans with Northwest Harvest. • Courtesy Photo

More low-income Washington families than ever before will go hungry in 2014 due to a $5 billion funding cut to the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food assistance to one in seven American households, according to Christina Wong, public policy manager for Northwest Harvest.

Cuts to SNAP went into effect November 1 when the 2009 economic stimulus package—which boosted it temporarily—expired. As a result, Washington state will lose $114 million in federal funding for food assistance over the next year.

This means the estimated 1.1 million Washington state residents who rely on food stamps to feed their families will face a decrease between $130 and $430 of their annual grocery budget starting this month. For a four-person household with a net income of less than $25,000 per year (the maximum salary to qualify for food stamps), this is a substantial loss that will slash up to five monthly meals.

Overall, 47 million meals will be taken away from needy Washington families in 2014, Wong said.

Food security nation-wide is further threatened by a GOP-crafted farm bill looming in Congress that would slash another $40 billion from SNAP over the next five years.

“With so many people going hungry in this day and age, it’s just unfathomable to me that anyone can think about taking away tools to fight that,” said Wong.

Northwest Harvest is a hunger relief organization that works with nearly 300 food banks across Washington state. It’s just one of several anti-hunger agencies in the state struggling to manage the dramatic increase in food bank clients this month.

According to Wong, decreased funding for SNAP is arriving at a time when food banks in the state already are dealing with heavily strained resources. Families who received full SNAP benefits prior to November 1 still required extra assistance from food banks to put meals on the table.

“Those clients are already at our food banks’ doors,” Wong said. “[Budget cuts] will only deepen need even more, because there will be no other alternative.”

Despite the recovering state of the economy, Washington currently ranks 15th in the nation for hunger—with particularly high levels of food insecurity plaguing the lowest income bracket, according to Wong.

“The economic recovery has helped those on the cusp of hunger and poverty avoid that pitfall,” she said. “But it’s done very little to change what’s happening to the people who are the most vulnerable and the most hungry.”

Wong said Washington state’s comparatively regressive tax system—the most extreme in the entire country—is partly to blame for food insecurity levels that failed to improve along with the economy. This is because marginal increases in gross income make little difference when poor households are forced to hand over the same disproportionately large chunk of their paycheck to the government; the amount of money left for food is still inadequate.

“What jobs [lower income] people are getting in this economy, it’s still not paying them enough to meet all their household needs,” she said.

Wong also cited Washington’s “abysmal” participation rate in other federal nutrition programs (especially those aimed at feeding low-income youth) as a contributing factor to statewide hunger.

Organizations like NW Harvest are now mobilizing to help food banks and other anti-hunger resources brace themselves for an influx of demand. They are also working to educate lower-income communities about maximizing their remaining benefits.

Food banks will have a particularly difficult time meeting clients’ needs this month, since they’ve only had about two weeks to adapt to a dramatic increase in clientele, Wong said.

Plus, the drop in SNAP funding arrived “just in time for Thanksgiving.”

But according to Wong, there is “no possible way” that food banks can completely make up for the nation’s No. 1 anti-hunger tool being downsized by billions of dollars. She said if the GOP farm bill passes and funding is slashed even further, every single food bank in the nation would need to somehow double its budget over the next year to even begin to compensate.

The fear of such an outcome is fueling fervent legislative lobbying by anti-hunger organizations to prevent further SNAP cuts from passing in Congress. NW Harvest is also fighting to expand the state’s emergency food assistance program by $1 million to help mitigate losses in federal funding.

According to Wong, this translates to 3 million meals potentially restored to low-income families in Washington—a “drop in the bucket” when compared to an overall loss of 47 million meals, but still a boon to food banks struggling to cope with “tremendous strain.”

“SNAP is our frontline defense against hunger,” she said. “There’s a pretty dismal outlook [for the future of food security] without it.”

Melanie Eng is a student in the University of Washington’s Department of Communication News Laboratory.

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