WASHINGTON-The number of Connecticut residents relying on food stamps jumped 33 percent over the last year, hitting a record high fueled by expanded eligibility and economic hard times.
At the same time, lawmakers in Washington have begun tapping the federal food stamp program to pay for other priorities, including a pending child nutrition bill.
The twin developments have pit anti-hunger advocates against public health experts, two interest groups that normally work shoulder-to-shoulder in Washington. Now, they are on opposite sides of a debate over whether to preserve hard-won gains in the federal food program or move ahead with a dramatic overhaul of childhood nutrition policy.
“I shouldn’t be fighting with nutrition people,” said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!, a nonprofit advocacy group that has pushed to expand Connecticut participation in the federal food stamp program.
But she is, because lawmakers in Washington are “taking away money from low-income families to feed kids better food.”
So before Congress adjourned, Nolan and other hunger activists launched a successful lobbying campaign to block House passage of the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” which would expand access to school meals for needy students and could eliminate sugary sodas and candy bars from vending machines, among other steps.
Nolan and other advocates fully support the bill, which could be revived in a lame-duck session after the elections. They just don’t like the way the Senate decided to pay for it-by trimming $2.2 billion from future funding for food stamp benefits.
“This is one of the more egregious cases of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, wrote, along with more than 100 other House members, in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi objecting to the Senate bill.
DeLauro was among those who fought to win increases in the federal food stamp program, known as SNAP, when Congress passed the 2009 economic stimulus bill. That law increased the maximum monthly food benefits by about 13 percent, which has meant an extra $63 a month for groceries for a typical family of three.
Hunger advocates say that boost was long overdue; before it went into effect, proponents say, many families’ food stamps ran out well before the month was over.
As of July 2010, the program was serving more than 41 million Americans, a nationwide record and an increase of 6.2 million participants over the previous year.
In Connecticut, nearly 80,000 new individuals and families signed up over the last year, bringing enrollment to more than 353,000. Nolan said the increase has been driven by the recession, as well as the state’s move to expand eligibility to those who make as much as 185 percent of the federal poverty line.
“Eight percent of Connecticut households received a benefit in 2009, and this is a state that’s one of the richest in the country,” said DeLauro. Many of the new enrollees “are people who never thought they were going to lose their jobs or go to a food pantry,” but are suddenly struggling to feed their families.
In August, however, Senate leaders redirected (DeLauro says “raided”) some of the increased food stamp benefits to pay for an emergency aid bill to help states avoid teacher lay-offs and to provide extra funds for Medicaid; in total, they subtracted $11.2 billion from future years of the SNAP program’s funding pot. And again last month, the Senate moved up the expiration date on the SNAP benefit increases by five months to cover part of the child nutrition bill’s $4.5 billion price tag.
Proponents of the child nutrition bill-which DeLauro has also championed-say the now-stalled legislative overhaul represents the first serious policy effort at addressing one of today’s most vexing public health threats: childhood obesity.
“This is must-pass legislation for kids,” Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said of the Senate legislation.
The bill would increase the number of kids eligible for free or reduced-priced school meals-breakfast, lunch, and after-school meals-and raise reimbursement rates to schools. It would also require those meals to be healthier, with less sodium and fat. And it would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to ban junk food from vending machines.
Wootan noted that obesity has reached epidemic levels in the U.S. Nearly 20 percent of children and adolescents, along with more than one third of adults, are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wooton says obesity costs the health care system $150 billion a year.
“Kids get about one-third to one-half of their calories from school on school days, so improving [school meals] is essential to addressing the problem,” she said. “This is the best child nutrition bill that Congress has put forward in decades.”
As for the food stamp cuts, she said, “This wouldn’t have been our choice for how to pay for the bill.” But, Wootan added, the five-month trim to food stamp benefits “will buy a lifetime of reforms and ten years of resources to address child nutrition.”
Both sides say they do not want to have this fight and even suggest it’s counterproductive.
“Hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin,” said Wootan. “Kids don’t just need calories. They need access to good nutrition. Low-income kids are more likely to be hungry, and they’re more likely to be overweight.”
Similarly, Nolan argued that the cuts to food stamps, estimated by opponents to be $59 a month for a family of four, would be a “double whammy.” (That estimate includes the $11.2 billion taken from food stamps to pay for the state-aid bill.) With less money to spend at the grocery story, Nolan said, people will cut back not only on the quantity of food they purchase, but also on the quality.
That’s why hunger advocates thought they were better served by stalling the child nutrition bill until after the elections. Nolan said she’s at a loss to understand why Congress cannot find some other way to pay for the child nutrition bill, and she’s hoping the election break will provide a new window to resolve the issue.
DeLauro said she is committed to pushing through the Senate bill and to looking for another vehicle to restore the food stamp funds–and maybe even finding more money for child nutrition.
In the meantime, she said she hoped the various interest groups would re-join forces to press the case for both issues.