The Bartletts are a family of four with two children, aged 8 and 4. Mr. Bartlett recently lost his job and Mrs. Bartlett works part-time for a retailer at just above minimum wage. Even with their limited income and some benefits including help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food-stamps), it is still extremely difficult for them to regularly put nutritious food on the table.
With Thanksgiving just behind us, and the rest of the holiday season ahead, food insecure households like the Bartletts will face additional challenges as they continue to struggle to make ends meet and still observe their holiday traditions. This is a common problem affecting more than 488,000 Connecticut residents living without food security.
SNAP, despite its name, often is not supplemental, but instead becomes the primary source of food for many of the nearly 235,000 SNAP households in Connecticut. SNAP is becoming even harder to depend on due to recent reductions in benefit levels, changes in calculation methodology, and the return of strict work rules in many towns.
There are other supports available to food insecure households, but not enough to make ends meet. Children may be eligible for free or reduced price breakfast, lunch and supper in some schools, and may get backpacks with items to help them get through the weekend. Pregnant women and families with children under 5 are afforded some staples under the Women, Infants, and Children program. Some elderly households may have access to dry goods and canned food under the Commodities Supplemental Food Program. And of course, many families rely on the network of food pantries and soup kitchens for assistance.
Food insecurity and hard times can impact nearly anyone, at any time, as evidenced during the recent financial crisis. The collection of food supports is patchwork at best; it’s underfunded, not available to everyone, and comes with a significant learning curve that those in crisis must master.
Beyond the immediate and obvious issue of acute hunger, food insecurity carries lasting harm. Poor nutrition leads to low birth weights, increased risk of illness and infection, and is causally linked to chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Furthermore, it contributes to rising healthcare costs for all. According to recent figures food insecurity cost the United States over $160 billion in 2014 alone. Hunger also accounts for decreased performance at work and school, which continues the cycle of reduced incomes and reliance on insufficient resources for food.
This house of cards almost collapsed when a Federal government shut down was threatened in October 2015. The USDA ordered no new SNAP benefits be issued until a resolution was reached. As we know, the government did not shut down, but the threat alone caused us to ask: What if SNAP disappeared? How would the Bartletts keep their children nourished? How would your elderly neighbor afford the food they need? How would the nearly half-million Connecticut residents relying on safety-net programs find enough to eat?
There are things you can do to help. First, contact your legislators in Congress. Impress upon them that SNAP and other food programs are top priorities.
Second, call on the Department of Social Services to adequately prepare SNAP recipients for crises like this. Advance notice of a looming government shutdown would allow recipients to budget their SNAP and connect with food pantries ahead of time.
Third, support local emergency food resources year round, not just at the holidays, and think creatively within your community to expand the emergency network.
Finally, encourage friends to educate themselves about food programs, and direct them to resources like Connecticut Legal Services if they have trouble getting benefits.
Looking back to the Bartletts, had the shutdown occurred, their already bleak holiday season, and every day thereafter would have been exponentially worse as they struggle to make sure their children did not go to bed hungry.
This holiday season would have been an afterthought amidst the daily scramble to provide nourishment for the family, and the holes in our safety-net would have been painfully clear.
As we enter this holiday season we should all be aware that hunger is affecting our communities every day and ask ourselves “How can I help?”
James Haslam and Matthew Dillon are staff attorneys for Connecticut Legal Services.