North Carolinas seven food banks see firsthand the effect the nations struggling economy has had on our neighbors. Many families are still hurting from the impact of high and prolonged unemployment, reduced hours and wages or the struggle to live on a single salary.
North Carolina has one of the highest unemployment rates and percentage of citizens experiencing food hardship in the nation. This is especially true for children under age 5 and our seniors.
Food banks across the nation continue to see unprecedented need. The number of people seeking emergency food assistance from the Feeding America network of food banks ballooned by 46 percent from 2006 to 2010. In North Carolina the growth was higher.
Even as the demand for emergency food assistance continues to grow, in the last session of the General Assembly funding for the states food banks was cut by almost half.
Congress is currently debating the Farm Bill and considering further cuts in federal nutrition programs. The support the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides to food banks in the form of TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program) commodities is dropping. Agriculture Department spending on TEFAP commodities fell by $173 million between FY10 and FY11. If the current low purchasing levels continue in 2012, Feeding Americas food banks will experience an additional 8 percent decline in commodities this year, for a total decline of 33 percent when compared with 2010 levels.
In the face of this declining support the cost of doing business for food banks and pantries continues to rise. Food prices grew at a rate of 6 percent in the last half of 2011, more than twice the historical average of the last two decades, and gas prices grew over 26 percent in 2011.
Into this climate add the devastating drought hitting much of our nation and we have a perfect storm that threatens to increase the cost of pantry staples like eggs, milk and dairy as well as of chicken, pork and other meat. This will further increase the strain on food banks..
Funding federal hunger relief programs is a smart investment. It makes sense fiscally and is a cost-effective use of taxpayer dollars. Hunger increases health care costs, lowers worker productivity, harms childrens development and diminishes their educational performance these are costs that we cannot afford.
Tough budget choices must be made to reduce the deficit, but we should do this by cutting programs and policies that dont work or arent essential, not those for which there is tremendous need. SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps), TEFAP and other nutrition programs have proven highly targeted and effective. SNAP has a 30-year track record of working; rising during hard economic times, falling when circumstances improve. Plus the majority of benefits go to the targeted recipients we would want, children and seniors.
The current Farm Bill in the U.S. Senate included $174 million in additional funding for TEFAP, and the House version an additional $250 million, in recognition of heightened need at food banks. These increases, welcome though they are, are not enough to make up for the declines in TEFAP we are currently experiencing, let alone the increased demand that cuts to SNAP will create as more people turn to food banks for help.
Our food banks and our charitable partners are the private-sector response to hunger. But we simply cannot compensate for cuts to SNAP at a time when resources are already stretched so thin. Struggling families need our help. Congress should oppose cuts to SNAP and support additional funding for TEFAP to make sure food banks have the resources we need to ensure we can help alleviate hunger here at home.
Alan Briggs is executive director of the N.C. Association of Feeding America Food Banks.