Is There a Better Way?

Alternatives Sign

SNAP has been a political football, kicked around so much by politicians that many people are uncomfortable with the program, though they know little about it. How does SNAP, our nation’s leading food assistance program, work? From a 40,000 ft. level view it’s really pretty straightforward. Congress determines eligibility guidelines and provides the funding. SNAP is then administered by state agencies. Here in Indiana it’s run by the Family and Social Services Agency (FSSA). Individuals in need of assistance apply to FSSA, and they determine whether the applicant qualifies. This is based primarily on income and assets.

If the person qualifies, they receive an EBT card which they can take to a nearby grocery store and use to buy food. Each month the cards are reloaded. If a person’s income improves, their benefit is reduced or eliminated.

It’s a classic public private partnership and it works well – the public sector confirms eligibility and the private sector delivers the goods.

I have a friend who’s been heavily involved in food pantries. He really wanted there to be a better program than SNAP. How could it be better? We sat down with a clean sheet of paper – if we were designing it from scratch, how would we do it?

Even with their armies of volunteers (free labor), pantries are no substitute for commercial groceries. Selection is limited, especially for anyone with dietary limitations, and hours are very limited. Handling practices are grossly inefficient, and there is no possibility to scale up 10X if they were asked to cover all of what SNAP does. Plus, such a move would create even more food deserts by driving grocery stores out due to loss of SNAP sales.

A simple cash transfer to all families is used in some countries. This cuts down on overhead, but would never be accepted in the US.

Government could try to save some money by negotiating prices like they do for WIC or requiring the rebate of a percentage of sales. The grocery business is a low margin business, so there is not a lot to be gained and, again, it would likely create more food deserts.

At the end of the day my friend and I just could not conjure up a better system. SNAP may be a bit like democracy. Winston Churchill said “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” There just is not a better approach than SNAP for providing food for large numbers of hungry Americans.

Don’t be confused by talk of block grants, “flexibility” for states, and other measures. Some may not like SNAP, but it works.  Please let your Representative and Senators know that you oppose cuts to SNAP.

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Making a Real Difference

Richard Gordon works hard in his role at Gleaners Food Bank, and he makes a real difference for hungry families. He had always hoped to make a difference, and when he graduated from IU in the early ’90s Richard wanted to be in government. He served with the State Association of Cities and Towns, later as a community developer at a leading non-profit in Indianapolis, and also had some corporate experience. Since 2013 he has been employed at Gleaners.

Richard loves his current role because he is helping folks who are really in need. He does not work in the warehouse, or direct Gleaners’ wonderful on-site food pantry. Richard’s role is to help people apply for and enroll in SNAP. He meets folks at locations all over the city, connects with them, and assists them through what can be a challenging enrollment process.

SNAP Application
On-line SNAP enrollment

 

He knows first-hand how important this is. The process takes a little while, but people are very grateful for his assistance because SNAP provides the greatest amount of food.

Richard’s impression of the many clients he has worked
with over four and half years are that they are not ‘freeloaders.’ They are just trying to feed their families. They want to do better with their lives, and they want a job that will allow them to buy all their own food. In the meantime, they enroll in SNAP because they really need the assistance.

Richard has helped rural and urban folks, all ethnicities, and people from various walks of life. He tells of the woman from Hamilton County who got downsized from her job at a Fortune 500 company. With no experience with food assistance, she drove all the way to Gleaners on the south side of Indianapolis seeking help in applying.

John Elliott, CEO of Gleaners, says: “SNAP is vital!“ and Gleaners 2017 Annual Report notes that their SNAP outreach resulted in the equivalent of nearly 725,000 meals.

The role SNAP can play was brought home to me recently when I talked to a man named Bob at a program for people working their way out of poverty. Bob’s life had gone downhill after his son died in 2009. He ended up homeless for months, living in abandoned buildings. Bob is doing much better now, and he credits three things for saving his life – a church, Wheeler Mission, and SNAP.

Both Richard and SNAP are making a real difference. SNAP helps real people in need. It works and our nation needs it. Please tell your Representative and Senators NO cuts to SNAP.

My 16 Day Journey

I know many of you have been wondering what my fast was like. Sixteen days with just an empty plate is a long time. How did I get through it? Empty Plate

Like anything you have never done before, it was an adventure. In some ways it was not what I expected.

I started the fast after consulting with my doctor. He advised having a source of electrolytes and vitamins (multivitamin pill and half bottle of Gatorade for breakfast), lots of water (lunch!) and some protein (half glass of almond milk for dinner).

I felt hungry a lot during the first two days. After that my body seemed to get the message that I was not going to be feeding it. I felt the lack of energy that comes from going without food – I was tired every day, especially in the afternoon, and needed a nap. One particular Friday it took three naps to get through the day. Although I had planned a reduced schedule I might have needed to cut back further. On a few occasions I felt faint, and this needed care of course.

The mental challenge was bigger. If you look around you see food-related advertising everywhere – restaurants, grocery stores, food items. My lowest point was when I happened on a full buffet table stretched out in front of me. Imagine you’re a person who cannot afford to buy enough food; these constant reminders would be like rubbing salt in a wound.

My challenge — which was not easy — was far easier than that of a food-insecure person. I was not eating by choice. I knew all along when the fast would end, and that I could end it at any time if I needed to. The hungry person is not hungry by choice, and there may not be an end in sight for them. Many food insecure individuals are continually on the edge, sometimes okay and sometimes not in an ongoing state of uncertainty. I had certainty.

I also experienced anxiety. I am not sure if this was because I was confronted with new challenges at a time when my energy level was low.

These mental challenges were offset for me by the many messages of support I received. Thanks to all!

Spiritually speaking, I also regularly sensed the strong support of the many people who were praying for me.

I ended the fast angry and disappointed, because the House passed the budget resolution unchanged on the same day when I broke the fast in the company of Robin and Bread friends. Angry and disappointed because this policy is so wrong and so immoral. I did not expect one man’s protest to change Congress’s direction, but I do hope I inspired others to be a voice for the hungry. Our country is better than this.

So, what comes next? Congress continues their work on the budget, and we should continue to do what we can to bring love to the public square.

Tell your Representative and Senators – NO cuts to SNAP! Please urge your network to action by posting your thoughts and links to this blog, Bread for Indiana’s and Bread for the World’s Facebook pages.

No Shoes, No Shirt #2

Who deserves our assistance? Shouldn’t we avoid giving food to those who don’t appear to deserve it?

I offer two reflections. For Christians, I would note that Jesus fed people, and when he did he fed everyone (Matt 14: 13-21). He did no selecting out, and he instructed his disciples to send no one away hungry.

Secondly, I share the story of a family I met years ago who had a clear window on this question.

At dinner time, I arrived at an urban church where a hot meal is provided outdoors every week. The weather was cold with a threat of rain, and the sun was going down. People were arriving by foot from all directions. The setting and the clientele made me a bit apprehensive. As I walked up to the old school bus around which the activity swirled, I was welcomed by John who, along with his father Roger and his step-mother Jill, make this meal go. John says he is the “bouncer,” but there is no need for interventions most evenings. “Feed them all, let God sort them out” is Roger’s motto for his outdoor dinner program.

The line quickly grows as they place and cover folding tables. Bottled water, utensils, desserts are laid out. The hot food, prepared in the church kitchen, follows and all is quickly served into take-home containers for the clients. Dinner box 1

Afterwards there is time to talk to Roger. He is a large man. A very large man, probably outweighing most NFL linemen. His white hair gives a clue as to his age.

The family’s involvement began when Jill had a dream that she was supposed to feed people. Roger resisted initially but was won over, and the evidence of time verifies the veracity of her calling. They have served dinner in this location weekly in all weather for multiple years.

They serve the homeless and near homeless.  The legions of working families who rely on food assistance are not among the dinner visitors here.

Even among this group, Roger’s analysis across all the thousands they have served, is that 80% of the people are very grateful for the meal they receive. Another 10% are mentally ill. Some of them have to be handled gingerly so they are not scared off before receiving their meal. Only the remaining 10% of those they serve are ‘greedy’ as Roger puts it, potentially working the system. Thus, the motto, “Feed them all, let God sort them out” which he connects to his Christian faith, is also very practical.

Bottom line: we too should not let a concern about freeloaders keep us from serving the overwhelming majority who deserve our support. Please contact your Representative and Senators and let them know that you oppose cuts to SNAP.

No Shoes, No Shirt #1

At some time or another, we’ve all seen a “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service” No Shoes No Shirt 2  sign hung in a restaurant window. Who deserves our assistance? Shouldn’t we avoid giving food to those who appear not to deserve it? This is an often-heard concern, voiced in connection with most types of food assistance for the hungry.

 

A driver for this concern at food pantries is that their food supply is always quite limited. Keeping food on their shelves is a daily challenge for the hard-working folks who run pantries. At best, clients can get a few days of food, and usually just once a month. So, a concern about restricting food to only the “deserving” is understandable. It reflects, however, a lack of understanding of the role of the food pantry in the bigger picture of food assistance. Food pantries have an important role to play but it is a focused niche, not the whole story.

The common stereotype that most of the hungry are lazy, happily living off of government assistance is often directed at programs like SNAP. There are, of course, some folks like this, but I’ve long wondered how many there really are?

So, let’s break this down. First, half of those receiving government assistance are in a demographic that unquestionably deserves our support. They are children who find themselves in the ranks of the hungry through no fault of their own. Our nation needs our children to grow up strong and ready to be contributing citizens. They cannot thrive in school if their stomachs are growling. Another portion of this half are people who cannot work. This includes disabled veterans and seniors, for example.

A great nation takes care of those who cannot care for themselves. These children, veterans and seniors are the Americans I am highlighting in my 50-meal fast.

Adults make up the second half of those receiving government assistance. Work is good for any of them who can work, and it’s good for society. Not all of them can work, however. I think of the nurse I met in Connersville several years ago. She was caring for three boys, all of whom had significant health issues. One was too old for school, and the other two were not a good fit for school. Caring for them was her full-time job.

Sadly, another major portion of hungry adults are in fact working. They are, however, caught by the gig economy, working part time, in a low wage job, or have seasonal employment. They do not earn enough to always feed their own families. Some earn little enough to qualify for SNAP. Some earn more than the Federal guidelines but are still sometimes short. This group constitutes fully one-third of the clients at food pantries.

After accounting for all of the above, how many “lazy” types are we left with? We’ll pick this up in our next blog.

How people are served is also important, as described in these helpfully provocative books:  When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, and Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, and How to Reverse It by Robert Lupton. This, too, is a topic for another day.

Hunger Is Not Partisan  

Like hurricanes and tornadoes, and nonsensical tragedies, resolving hunger is one of the few issues able to bring people together. All the major traditions of faith call for their adherents to feed the hungry. Rural and urban alike can understand the importance of seeing that no child goes hungry.

Similarly, hunger is not a partisan issue. Not many political leaders think hunger is a good idea. In the last election, no one ran on a platform of increasing hunger.

In our nation’s legislative history, the great advances have come from bipartisan collaboration. Senators George McGovern (D) and Bob Dole (R) worked across party lines, putting partisanship aside for the shared purpose of feeding the most vulnerable members of our global community. Their work improved the lives of Americans and members of the human family across the world. The McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, for example, has provided school meals to more than 40 million children in some of the world’s poorest countries. Senator Dole is still a member of the board of Bread for the World.

S. Lugar at Alliance

Another great champion of the hungry has been Indiana’s Senator Richard Lugar. Born out of his lived experience as a family farmer, school board member and Mayor of Indianapolis, Senator Lugar was a great friend to hungry people during his time in the Senate and continues to focus on reducing food insecurity.

I am grateful for Senator Lugar’s support for this Million Meal Fast. In a letter last week, he wrote: “I recently learned of your plan to fast for 16 days to call attention to Congress’s proposed cuts to the federal SNAP program. . . . I share in your disappointment over the congressional proposal and I thank you for your continuing efforts to help the millions of food insecure Americans.”

Please contact your Representative and Senators and let them know that you oppose cuts to SNAP. SNAP provides 2/3 of the food for hungry people in the US. It’s vital to kids, veterans and seniors. There is no better alternative.

“We can all agree that no one ought to go hungry in America, and SNAP is essential in protecting the most vulnerable citizens during tough times. For many it is a vital lifeline to keeping food on the table.”

K. Michael Conaway, Republican of Texas, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, from: Past, Present, & Future of SNAP, Hearing Series Findings: 114th Congress

Coming Together

Yesterday in this blog, we talked about how stereotypes of hungry people are a major hurdle to understanding and ending hunger.

(Postscript to that blog: when we avoid stereotypes of hungry people, we may also be protecting ourselves and our children, because studies show that most Americans will need food assistance at some point in their lives!)

Stereotypes divide all of us, including those who don’t need food assistance. This is clear to anyone who’s not been in a coma for the last year or two. There is great divisiveness in our land, over all kinds of things. Amanda Taub wrote in the New York Times: “Partisan bias now operates more like racism than mere political disagreement”. We have to ask ourselves, “What does our heart tell us when our head is bombarded with so much information from so many sides?”

What we have learned from our hearts, and our heads, in our quest to end hunger in Indiana is that we need everyone. Hunger is like a 250 lb. fullback – it’s not sitting back and waiting, it’s coming at us full on, and we have to team tackle it. The problem is so large that we need public and private, faith-based and secular, business and nonprofits all working together. If we collaborate, we can meet the challenge. SNAP is an essential part of the team.

This collaboration means working beyond our usual boundaries – working with people who are different. Indy Hunger Network and other Hunger Free Community groups across the country do this. IHN’s collaboration has meant millions of additional meals for Indy. The photo is from a meeting yesterday of IHN leaders with Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb to discuss collaborations to end hunger.

Likewise, Bread for the World collaborates to impact US policy. In fact, the only way to change public policy is through working together. Bread brings together Christians from 50 denominations and lots of others as well.        IHN and Gov Holcomb

The hunger problem is solvable, if we set aside labels and get to know one another, and focus on working together to assist those in need.

I urge you to join your voice with ours and request our government continue to do its part to end hunger. Contact your Congressional representative and let them know that their constituents include the hungry, and they deserve to be fed. Urge them to oppose cuts in funding for SNAP.

dave