DN Editorial: Imagine hunger

Posted: November 27, 2013

IF YOU are so inclined, you can understand what recent cuts to the food stamp program means: Tomorrow, remove one vegetable and all the desserts from your Thanksgiving spread.

Or, go to the grocery store, shop for your usual order, then put back $9 worth of items. That's the average weekly cut to the food stamp program that went into effect Nov. 1, which transpired when a temporary hike to cope with the 2008 recession lapsed and Congress neglected to extend it.

Most of us could trim $9 from our shopping cart without too much pain, but those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits start out with a bare-bones budget: Before Nov. 1, a family of three received $526 a month, meaning a food budget of $5.91 a day per person. On Nov. 1, that went down to $4.76 a day per person.

It's not easy to care about food stamps as an issue - unless, of course, you need them. Among those who don't need them are some who think we spend too much feeding the poor, or too much feeding people who are simply too lazy to work. Or that helping people is coddling them and that they'd be better off if they were taught a little "self-reliance." Those people think that jobs that pay enough to support a family are plentiful.

All you need to remember is that Walmart holds holiday food drives for its employees.

The best antidote to that spirit of stinginess - and a reminder that society fulfills its best promise when people take care of each other - is meeting someone like Emily E., 29, who lives in West Philly with her 5-year-old son. She's a home health-care worker with part-time hours and $348 a month in food stamps. Her job may soon turn into full time, which most likely means that she'll lose her food stamps and her health insurance - and ironically, could make her struggle even harder.

Emily is smart, funny and articulate. Her encounters with the social-service system, stemming from troubles with her son's father, have made her both savvy and wary. Words like "comply" pepper her language, because in her world a broken rule or unmet deadline can make the difference between getting desperately needed help and getting nothing.

"I've had to be smart about every decision I make," she says.

She has to work this Thanksgiving, but plans to make a meal sometime over the weekend to celebrate with her son and her fiance. That's not going to be easy. The cuts to food stamps means that she hasn't been able to buy enough to qualify for a free turkey. She has a tiny refrigerator, so she can shop for only a few things at a time, and it forces her to go more often to the corner store, where she knows things are more expensive.

She is one of the Witnesses to Hunger, a project of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University's School of Public Health. The program gives women the tools to document their lives and help their struggles to feed their families ( www.centerforhungerfreecommunities.org). Witnesses have testified in Congress about food stamps. Maybe they should go again soon.

Sen. Bob Casey is pushing to restore the current cuts, which impact 47 million Americans. But even worse cuts are in the pipeline, so Casey's efforts don't seem destined for success: the House wants to trim the program by $40 billion as part of revisions to the Farm Bill; the Senate wants to cut $4 billion.

Emily wants to tell them: "Listen to our stories, hear our stories, come talk to us. It will change your life. Shop on a budget for a month, see how it works out for you. And then make decisions off of that. How easy was it for you? How can you tell someone else what to do without understanding what it really means?"

The Thanksgiving holiday is our time to celebrate and show gratitude for abundance. Good thing "abundance" is a subjective state, because people like Emily are just as anxious to celebrate all they have. Even if they have so much less - and are about to see that little bit shrink even more.

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