Nutrition, public health and food stamps

In his 1938 book, My America, Louis Adamic wrote about answering the doorbell one morning during the Great Depression to be confronted by hungry children on their way to school. A girl spoke to him:“ Excuse me, Mister…but we have no eats in our house and my mother said I should take my brother before we go to school and ring a doorbell in some house…and ask you to give us something to eat.”

The following year, after having distributed some surplus commodities, through the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created an experimental food stamp program that lasted until 1943. Food insecurity was a problem then and it is today. A recent report found that 22 percent of Philadelphians were food insecure, lacking enough food for an active, healthy life. Yet the nation is in the midst of a congressional debate about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the descendent of the 1964 Food Stamp Act. A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study of the impact of the cuts that some in Congress proposed found they would lead to greater poverty and food insecurity, with as many as 1.2 million children losing eligibility for free or reduced price school meals.

Opponents of the SNAP program claim it suffers from problems of fraud. That is not true; the rate is low and falling. Others claim that too many are eligible for SNAP. That is the result of our current recession, which began in 2007. Some wonder what people buy with SNAP. The answer is food—but no food that will be eaten in the store and no hot food. You cannot buy alcohol or tobacco products with SNAP.

These facts have not stopped the usual suspects from trotting out the plans’ abusers to try to sway the public to believe otherwise. It's red-meat for the conservative movement to put up some knuckleheaded 29-year-old aspiring musician and surfer from California who uses his food stamps to buy lobster, as Fox News recently did. They are doing this to justify a proposal to cut as much as $4 billion from SNAP programs, cuts that would harm our fellow citizens, who, for the moment need our help.

Let’s look at the facts. Summarizing data from the USDA reported by  documents that 76 percent of SNAP households include a child, an elderly person or a disabled person. These are the householdS receiving 83 percent of all SNAP benefits; they are households made eligible by the fact that they have income no more than 130 percent of the poverty level. The fact is that most SNAP recipients are in working-class, under-employed or minimum wage households.

What kind of people are we that we tolerate cutbacks that aim to harm the most vulnerable among us? The Great Depression taught us to be a compassionate nation, to help provide for those among US who need help until they are back on their feet. The Great Recession, it seems, has had the opposite effect, and we now risk seeing cuts—cuts!!!—to an essential safety net program at a time when it should be expanded.

Thanks to the SNAP program, we don’t have children knocking on doors on their way to school. Let’s not go back to that. The public’s health begins with food security.

Read more about The Public's Health.