For area residents struggling to put food on the table, or more to the point, in bellies, the news last week sounded grim. As of Friday, the federal government rolled back the amount of money given to recipients of what previously was known as food stamps.
The 5.4 percent reduction in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, won’t be pain-free or popular, particularly in Northeastern Pennsylvania — a place seemingly perpetually stuck in the economic doldrums.
That said, we support the government’s action. Not because we suddenly lost compassion for Luzerne County’s less fortunate. Not because we’re callous to the continued prevalence of food insecurity in this region and pockets of most communities nationwide.
Rather, we, like plenty of close observers of government-run programs, have no appetite for “temporary,” “emergency” and “one-time” expenses that never reach a sunset, instead becoming blindly accepted as necessary.
In 2009, SNAP received what was intended to be a short-term funding boost. The money, contained in a package called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aimed to support those families and individuals most stung by the Great Recession’s devastating impact on savings accounts and jobs. The recession officially ended more than four years ago. Why, then, should the extra funding continue to flow?
At the Weinberg Food Bank in Wilkes-Barre, a clearinghouse for food-distribution programs throughout the region, the reaction heard last week was a familiar refrain: “We have a growing need every day, week and month.”
If that’s so, why? And what can be done about it?
Rather than paying for a wide-open pipeline of milk, cheese, bread and other foods, might taxpayers’ dollars be better spent in solving the underlying issues that result in poverty and hunger? Could we do more to prepare Luzerne County’s young adults for the workforce? Can community and backyard gardens become more common and lessons in food storage methods more fruitful? Do certain parents need more training in savvy grocery shopping and food preparation?
Over the near term, of course, the proper response to any food shortfall is obvious. Those people who have adequate supplies should share with those who don’t.
Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare Secretary Beverly D. Mackereth made that point last week when commenting on the SNAP rollback. “It is our hope,” she said, “that our local organizations and communities can pull together to help fill the gap for our citizens in need.”
In Luzerne County, those who are able can donate money, food or volunteer labor to the network of social service programs that address hunger locally, such as the independent Meals on Wheels programs based in Kingston, Pittston and Hazleton, the St. Vincent de Paul Kitchen in downtown Wilkes-Barre (a project of Catholic Social Services) and the Weinberg Food Bank (operated by the Commission on Economic Opportunity).
These programs, in many cases, also help people eligible for SNAP benefits but who don’t receive them for various reasons, such as Pennsylvania’s overzealous “asset test” purportedly used to root out fraud.
As a community, and a country, we should strive to ensure everyone has access to adequate, nutritious food. But let’s not habitually toss taxpayer money down what could be a bottomless pit.