N.J. Foodbank CEO: Farm Bill punishes hungry Americans. 3 things we could do better

By Carlos M. Rodriguez, President & CEO of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey

Originally published on NJ.com Opinion

Despite unemployment at its lowest rate in recent history, the U.S. — and New Jersey in particular — is struggling financially.

New Jerseyans are struggling in part because the cost of living continues to surpass most salaries. Low-wage jobs continue to dominate the landscape — 52 percent of all jobs in New Jersey pay less than $20 per hour — and unfortunately, these are the types of positions expected to grow over the next decade.

Because of this gap between wages and costs of necessities, food assistance is critical to New Jersey. Nearly 1 million people in the state face hunger every day, and for over 800,000 of our neighbors, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the lifeline that ensures access to affordable, nutritious food. Nearly 70 percent of New Jersey SNAP participants are families with children, and approximately one-third are elderly or have disabilities. For those facing financial hardship, SNAP is often the help our neighbors need to get through rough economic patches, so they can feed their families while working and getting back on their feet.

The vital importance of SNAP is exactly why we should care about the federal farm bill.

When the House of Representatives approved its version on Thursday, lawmakers effectively threatened to create a dangerous roadblock to making nutritious food accessible to hungry New Jerseyans. The proposed legislation imposes strict work requirements for SNAP recipients, with the authors insisting these changes would help break the cycle of poverty, and in turn, reduce the number of people who rely on food assistance.

However, there is no evidence to support this claim, and in fact, SNAP already requires able-bodied adults to work or participate in training or education.

The House bill creates an onerous process that would prevent millions of Americans from getting the food they need. Feeding our food-insecure neighbors need not rely on a cumbersome process that creates bureaucracy at the expense of feeding those who are hungry.

If anything, any legislation designed to streamline SNAP should eliminate barriers to entry — not punish veterans, seniors and children with indiscriminate cuts.

Moreover, while the bill requires states to expand their training programs for those struggling to find jobs, the fact is that most people who rely on SNAP are already employed. Nationally, over half of working-age SNAP participants held a job within a typical month of SNAP participation, and nearly three-quarters within a year.

Fortunately, the House’s bill is likely to be rejected in the U.S. Senate.

The Senate version of the bill leaves out the unproven and burdensome work requirements suggested by the House, opting instead to fund a pilot program that will study the effectiveness of job training for SNAP participants.

But what might a better bill look like — one that is intended to help, not penalize, hungry Americans?

First, we should be doing everything we can to increase SNAP participation among those who are eligible. Although SNAP currently reaches 74 percent of qualified New Jerseyans, 26 percent, or nearly 250,000 individuals, do not have the same access to affordable, healthy food.

Second, our legislators should consider exploring a more expansive approach to eligibility, thereby putting more food on the table of our neighbors who need it.

Third, we should not forget other federal nutrition programs. The National School Lunch Program, Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), among others, provide essential assistance to hungry Americans. Right now, Congress’ funding for TEFAP in the farm bill is in question, falling short of what food banks need to feed families across the country and throughout the year.

Congress needs to preserve full funding for this cornerstone of the food supply for our national network of food banks, including those in New Jersey. Yet, the issue of federal nutrition only comes to the forefront every four years, when legislators are forced to relitigate largely effective programs. We should constantly be thinking of ways to hone all our federal nutrition programs.