Why Millions Of Americans Go Hungry And How To Address Their Needs

MS. DIANE REHM

10:06:53
This is WAMU and NPR in Washington. I'm Diane Rehm. Nearly a fourth of Americans attend religious services of more than one faith or denomination. And more than a third are now married to a person of a different religion. As American society becomes more open and tolerant...

MS. DIANE REHM

10:07:15
And sorry about that little glitch. Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. At the beginning of November, a boost to the Food Stamp program enacted during the financial crisis came to an end. For the nearly 50 million Americans who rely on government food assistance, their lives became more difficult. The House and Senate are considering even more severe cuts.

MS. DIANE REHM

10:07:46
Joining me here to talk about hunger in America, Jerry Hagstrom of the Hagstrom Report, a Nation Journal magazine. Welcome to you, Jerry.

MR. JERRY HAGSTROM

10:07:58
Thank you. It's so nice to be with you.

REHM

10:08:00
And Jim Weill of the Food Research and Action Center, thank you for joining us.

MR. JIM WEILL

10:08:06
Thank you, Diane. It's good to be here.

REHM

10:08:08
And throughout the hour we'll talk with representatives of programs around the country working to alleviate hunger. Of course you are always part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Jim Weill, do we really have some solid numbers as to how many people in this country are hungry?

WEILL

10:08:46
Yes. The Census Bureau, the federal government does an annual survey of the number of people living in what they call food insecure households. That does mean everybody is going to bed hungry every night. It means the families occasionally skipping meals or frequently skipping meals, can't afford a balanced diet. And there are 49 million people in the most recent data. Forty-nine-million people live in food insecure households in this country.

REHM

10:09:12
And now is this across the country or are there pockets where those numbers are even higher?

WEILL

10:09:20
Well, there are places where the rates are higher, for example, the south and the west, surprisingly. California and Oregon have high rates. But the hunger is everywhere in America. It's rural as well as urban. It's eastern, northeastern as well as west and south. It's suburban as well as rural and urban.

REHM

10:09:40
And, Jerry Hagstrom, explain for us the expiration of funds that took place on November 1.

HAGSTROM

10:09:49
Certainly. Well, the Economic Recovery Act included a boost for food stamps and it was done for two reasons. One was the idea that there would be more people in this great recession who needed food assistance and needed more money for food assistance. And secondly that it would be an economic stimulus. But it was only -- it was put in for a period of time and it expired on November 1. In practical terms what that means is about a 5 percent cut, and that a family of four that has been given $600 plus per month for food stamps -- or as we now call it the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program...

REHM

10:10:33
...SNAP.

HAGSTROM

10:10:33
...SNAP, would have seen their benefits cut by $36 a month.

REHM

10:10:39
Now is this all part of the Food and Farm Bill?

HAGSTROM

10:10:46
No. That boost was part of the Recovery Act. So now congress is also rewriting the farm bill. And in that bill they are also considering additional cuts to the program. The Senate bill would cut the benefits by $4 billion over ten years. If the entire House cut went through, it would be a $39 billion cut over ten years. But quite frankly, for me what bothered me the most about the proposals in the House bill is that not only would they cut benefits, that they would actually take a lot of people off the program. If it went all the way, 3.8 million people would lose their food stamp benefits.

REHM

10:11:36
Is this because the congress simply doesn't believe that there are 49 million Americans going hungry or is it from their perspective trying to reduce the footprint of government?

WEILL

10:11:53
Well, a lot of it comes from people in congress who don't think there should be a food stamp program at all.

REHM

10:11:58
...at all.

WEILL

10:11:58
And there have been a lot of attack from the far right wing from outside groups as well as from Tea Party members of congress. So a lot of it's about philosophy of government. It's not particularly about deficit politics, because food stamps don't really contribute to deficits. It's not particularly about anything except antagonism towards government, and a lot of misconception.

WEILL

10:12:20
There's a lot of talk in conservative circles about this program as being an urban program. There's a lot of racial code in this, when in fact hunger rates and foot stamp participation rates are basically as high in rural areas as they are in urban areas.

REHM

10:12:35
So what you're saying is that they're not paying attention to hunger itself. What they're looking at is the way government becomes involved in people's lives.

WEILL

10:12:49
That's right. I mean, the poster boy for this attack in some ways is a member of the House Agriculture Committee who gets farm subsidies for himself and his family.

REHM

10:12:59
Who is that?

WEILL

10:12:59
His name is Fincher. And he was attacking the program even though about a quarter of the people in his home county receive food stamps.

HAGSTROM

10:13:09
Yes. I find some of the, I would have to say, ignorant shocking. When it comes to the conservatives who are proposing these things, I believe part of it is a philosophical discussion. And also part of what they are doing, they're doing out of inexperience. Quite a few of these new members of congress -- I mean, the ones who are the freshmen and sophomores, have not been in public office that much. And I don't think they have that much experience with poor people. They haven't really had to confront it.

HAGSTROM

10:13:40
They're elected by conservatives, they're appealing to the base. But also I don't think they have -- they just don't have as much contact with them. And they really don't realize what the problem is. I don't find them as mean as I find them inexperienced.

REHM

10:13:54
Do you agree with that, Jim?

WEILL

10:13:57
Well, I think they are inexperienced. I think often -- Jerry used the word ignorant -- I think there's a lot of ignorance out there. I don't think people are -- all of them are necessarily mean. Some are meaner than others but the problem is that they and many people think of food stamp recipients and poor people as the other, as different from themselves. When, in fact, being hungry from time to time, being unemployed from time to time, not having enough income from social security when you're a senior, is an American experience.

WEILL

10:14:30
Half of all children in this country are on food stamps at some point during childhood because so many people, urban, rural, white, black, Hispanic move in and out of poverty and unemployment.

REHM

10:14:41
So if these additional cuts were to actually go into effect, how many more people would classify under that umbrella of hunger in America?

WEILL

10:14:57
So we can't directly translate from throwing 4 million people off the program to 4 million hungrier people. But that gives you a rough approximation. Also there are cuts in benefits beyond -- as Jerry indicated, there was a bump up in benefits from the Recovery Act. Congress prematurely terminated that in prior legislation. That's going to increase the hunger rate. And then these additional cuts, both in eligibility, throwing people out of the program and proposals to reduce benefits for some people would also increase hunger rates if they pass.

REHM

10:15:36
Jim Weill, as president of the Food Research and Action Center, I would assume that you spend part of your time on Capitol Hill trying to talk with members of congress and their staffs, trying to help them understand the seriousness of the problem. I wonder what kinds of reactions you get.

WEILL

10:16:02
Well, we get -- the best ambassadors to the Hill, the best lobbyists of course or people from the districts. And more and more we try and connect members to advocates and low income people in their districts. And members understand it when they hear from their districts. And we hear a lot of sympathy, both real and sometimes perhaps not real, from members on both sides of the aisles. A lot of the proponents of cuts have said they don't want to take a single calorie away from a deserving person, but they don't actually connect that up to the legislation. But that's the mantra we hear from conservatives often, as well as from progressives.

REHM

10:16:46
So it's what they're saying on the one hand because people in their own districts believe very strongly in smaller government and don't connect with what is hunger in America. What else can be done, Jerry, to convince these members of congress that hunger is real, hunger exists all over the country and hungry families need help?

HAGSTROM

10:17:20
Well, personally I think the anti-hunger activists around the country, particularly in the southern states, need to talk to their members of congress more, even if it seems like a daunting task.

REHM

10:17:31
Which is the worst state?

HAGSTROM

10:17:34
I believe it's Mississippi, isn't it Jim?

WEILL

10:17:36
Mississippi and Arkansas and Alabama tend to be in the top three or four every year.

HAGSTROM

10:17:42
Now Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee has been one of the strongest supporters of food stamps. He has realized the problem. But the issue that I see is with the younger generation of conservative Republican politicians. They do not -- they have not gotten this message. They don't understand this. Of course, many of them are also opposed to the farm program which makes them opposed to the entire farm bill.

HAGSTROM

10:18:12
But I think that the activists have to speak more to these people, even if it's tough. I've had the activists tell me, it's so hard because they're spending so much time providing food to people. But I think they have to talk more.

REHM

10:18:24
Jerry Hagstrom. He's founder and executive editor of the Hagstrom Report. He's also a columnist for National Journal. Jim Weill is president of the Food Research and Action Center. When we come back, we'll talk to representatives around the country. Stay with us.

REHM

10:19:59
And welcome back. Joining us now by phone from New York, Triada Stampas. She's senior director of government relations for the Food Bank for New York City. Welcome to you, Triada. Tell us about the people the food bank actually serves.

MS. TRIADA STAMPAS

10:20:22
Well, first of all, Diane, thank you for having me on your show. Food Bank for New York City serves 1.5 million residents of the five burrows of New York City. So that's about one in five New Yorkers who are touched by our programs and services in some way, whether that's receiving a meal at one of our network of nearly 1,000 food pantries and soup kitchens and community-based organizations across the city or being assisted with food stamp applications or receiving nutrition education for households with low budgets or getting free tax assistance services. So we provide a range of services that 1.5 million New Yorkers or one in five access.

REHM

10:21:07
And give us a sense of how the need has changed or risen or dropped since November 1.

STAMPAS

10:21:19
That's the million dollar question at this point. And while it's too soon right now to have system-wide information, we are going to be gathering that data in the coming weeks. What we've heard anecdotally from the food pantries and soup kitchens that we serve is alarming and disturbing. Within the first week of the month, food pantries and soup kitchens were reporting longer lines to us.

STAMPAS

10:21:44
And anyone who's familiar with emergency food knows that it's typically the end of the month that sees the bulk of the need because the end of the month is really when people's benefits have run out. They may not have any disposable income. They've exhausted the generosity of friends or family. And a food pantry or a soup kitchen is really the last place they can turn. To see longer lines at the start of the month is really unprecedented.

REHM

10:22:14
Do I understand correctly that before the SNAP benefits cut ,the average allotment was $1.50 per person per meal, and now it's dropped to below $1.40 per person per meal?

STAMPAS

10:22:36
That's correct. And in a city like New York, especially when the cost of everything including food is so high, even before the cuts the food stamp budget was really challenging to stretch through an entire month. We found that 42 percent of our city's population on food stamps was already accessing food pantries and soup kitchens before a single benefit dollar was cut because for three-quarters of them, those benefits weren't lasting past the third week of the month. So the reduced amount is going to force even greater hardship on those already struggling to get by which, you know, we're incredibly concerned about of course.

REHM

10:23:19
Triada, how many of the people you serve would you estimate are homeless or are working? Can you tell from those who come in and apply, what their status actually is?

STAMPAS

10:23:40
Yeah, we actually recently released new research on this. We're a food bank that has a research department. And that makes us unique in the network of food banks across the country. And every few years we do primary research to get an unduplicated count of people accessing food pantries and soup kitchens and real information about them. So we know that 11 percent of New Yorkers who access food pantries and soup kitchens -- only 11 percent by the way, because I think the common perception is that most people accessing food pantries and soup kitchens are homeless -- it's only 11 percent.

STAMPAS

10:24:15
Now I say only because that might defy common expectations but that number is about 150,000 homeless New Yorkers turning to food pantries and soup kitchens for food. About one in five people on a food pantry or soup kitchen have a job. So, I mean, like we've got, you know, some really interesting numbers there. The fact that there are people who are working who still need an emergency food program to keep food on the table for the month is frankly not the way things should be, and unfortunately for too many people, the way things are.

REHM

10:24:56
And finally, tell me how much of the food you've put out for people in New York comes from government-financed programs and how much of it might come from volunteers?

STAMPAS

10:25:15
So we're -- you know, our food comes from both public and private sources. Government accounts for about half of the food that we distribute over the course of a year. And I think, you know, an important thing for your listeners to hear in this discussion is, Food Bank for New York City is the largest food bank in the country. We have thousands of donors and volunteers, supporters, corporate partners who help us do the work that we do.

STAMPAS

10:25:43
The amount in SNAP benefits that is being -- that was cut earlier this month, over the course of the year will take away in New York City 76 million meals. And that is more food than our food bank distributes annually. So there's a -- you know, the scale of this I think can sometimes be spoken in ways that minimize it. For us in New York it is -- you know, we consider this a disaster.

REHM

10:26:10
Triada Stampas. She is senior director of government relations for the Food Bank of New York City. Thanks so much for joining us.

STAMPAS

10:26:24
Thank you, Diane.

REHM

10:26:26
And turning to you now, Jerry, there's something called categorical eligibility. Explain what that is, how it affects the program.

HAGSTROM

10:26:38
Certainly. Under categorical eligibility the states are allowed to put people who qualify for other programs on food stamps. Not directly but it eases the eligibility -- or it eases the process of applying and getting onto the program.

REHM

10:26:59
Give me an example.

HAGSTROM

10:27:00
Well, if someone gets Medicaid or free school meals, etcetera, it would be -- there would be a process in which they are sent to the office in which they apply for food stamps or their application is sent. It just eases it for the states and also it eases it for the person. But the Republican proposal in the House would like to cut back on this. It would essentially make it harder to get onto the program.

REHM

10:27:40
Jim, do you want to add to that?

WEILL

10:27:43
Well, categorical eligibility is a way to reduce states' administrative costs to reduce paperwork and bureaucracy and to make it easier for seniors with bank accounts but very, very little income, for low-income working families with high childcare costs to get into the program. Forty-five states have adopted categorical eligibility to one extent or another. So when the Republicans in the House of Representatives attack that, they're disagreeing with 45 Democratic and Republican governors and the decisions made by all of these states.

REHM

10:28:22
Isn't there also a question about car ownership and whether that somehow affects a person's eligibility for food stamps, food banks, anything else?

WEILL

10:28:36
That's right. Categorical eligibility is significantly a way to make it easier for people with very modest assets. A senior with $4,000 in the bank, a family with $3,000 in the bank for a security deposit and first month rent, a family with two cars to get to work -- two, you know, eight-year-old cars makes it easier for those families, those seniors to get benefits, to get SNAP.

REHM

10:29:04
And we've had several messages, both on Facebook and by email. "How does one reconcile 49 million hungry people with the obesity that we face in this country? Or perhaps there's no overlap in this demographic." Here's another. "I don't see a lot of thin -- pardon me -- starving Americans." When was the last time you saw a starving American, Jim?

WEILL

10:29:44
Well, because of the Food Stamp Programs, starvation is virtually nonexistent in this country. We have sort of a low-grade fever of people not getting enough benefits, running out at the end of the month, not being able to purchase healthy diets. There's a wonderful pediatrician named Debbie Frank who says that food stamps are like a fabulous medicine for hunger, but congress gives people a sub-therapeutic dose. So that's why we don't have starvation.

WEILL

10:30:13
Obesity is a serious problem in this country that affects all populations, low-income populations as well as higher-income populations. It's caused by -- among the poor often by lack of resources, lack of income and not enough food stamps as the Institute of Medicine, the prestigious scientific bodies indicated, not enough benefits to get people a healthy diet throughout the month.

REHM

10:30:44
Do they choose -- when these food stamps arrive, do they choose unhealthier foods because they may be more filling or do they have a choice?

WEILL

10:30:59
Well, to some degree people have a choice and to some degree they don't. Many people, particularly low-income people live in food deserts where there isn't access to healthier foods. Many people don't have the resources, the income to buy healthier foods, which can be more expensive. And also sometimes people make bad choices. There's a nutrition education component of the Food Stamp Program which congress has also cut funding for, which should be doing more.

REHM

10:31:27
All right. And joining us now by phone from Flint, Mich., Terri Stangl. She's executive director of the Center for Civil Justice with offices in Flint and Saginaw, Mich. Terri, tell us what you're seeing in Michigan in terms of food needs. What we've been hearing so much about is the bankruptcy filing in Detroit, but not quite sure how that's affecting the people who live in broader Michigan.

MR. TERRI STANGL

10:32:05
Yeah, good morning, Diane, and thanks for having me.

REHM

10:32:07
Certainly.

STANGL

10:32:08
The bankruptcy is affecting a lot of the organizations that are trying to relieve poverty in Michigan. But it's symptomatic of the continuing economic hardship of the state. And in a community even like Flint where we had a city of 250,000 people that is now below 100,000 people, that kind of loss of jobs, opportunity, vacancies has a huge ongoing affect on the economy and people trying to get out.

REHM

10:32:42
And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Terri, what would changes in categorical eligibility for the SNAP program -- how would that affect Michigan's poor?

STANGL

10:32:59
Well, the vast majority of people in Michigan on SNAP are either on fixed incomes like elderly or folks with disabilities or they're working. And in Michigan we've had a loss of higher paying manufacturing and automotive jobs where many, many people are moving into part time, lower wage service and retail jobs. So they have a lot less income, but a higher percentage of that income is going for child care, for rent, for utilities.

STANGL

10:33:33
So what categorical eligibility does in Michigan is it says we're not going to look at the total amount you bring home. We're going to look at what's left. Because in the SNAP Program -- and many people don't understand this -- in the SNAP Program, that $1.40 per meal you're talking about, that assumes you have no income at all. If you have any income then the program assumes you can spend part of your money on food. And for low-wage families, they often cannot because they're paying the heat bill. They're paying for gas in the car. They're paying for car insurance. So they don't have that extra cash.

STANGL

10:34:14
So categorical eligibility allows us in Michigan to look at what's left, not just knocking people out because their earnings are a little too high at the start.

REHM

10:34:24
So how many people there in Flint and Saginaw would you say are seeking help with food?

STANGL

10:34:36
Well, statewide there are almost one in five people in the state that are receiving help through the SNAP program. And that’s both -- across the board, rural and urban areas. And there are many people who do not get SNAP who are going for emergency help. They have trouble getting through the system. They have fallen off for different bureaucratic reasons or they haven't followed a rule properly. So there is a much higher percentage of that. And I...

REHM

10:35:07
And how much help are you getting from churches, from private -- other private organizations there in Michigan?

STANGL

10:35:18
Well, Michigan has a very large and active food bank network that hooks up to hundreds and hundreds of churches and soup kitchens and that kind of thing. But what all those folks will tell you is they are not the solution. They help with the emergency, they help fill in the gap but they cannot be the first line of defense against SNAP. And we get calls at my organization. We have a statewide telephone line where people call finding out about what they can qualify or why they're falling through the cracks.

STANGL

10:35:52
And since this last range of cuts, we've been getting lots of calls from people trying to understand why their benefits went down and what they're supposed to do and where they can go now for that help.

REHM

10:36:04
Jerry Hagstrom, I gather you have a question for Terri.

HAGSTROM

10:36:08
Yes. Have you been in contact with Senator Stabenow on these issues? Because my understanding is that Senator Stabenow, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, wants the congress to take into consideration this recent SNAP cut because it would save $11 billion over the next few years. She wants that as part of what congress considers the cut. But the Republicans are resisting this. They're saying, oh no, we want these cuts on top of that 11 billion. And I'm just wondering how the debate is going in Michigan and whether you're able to convince people to take Senator Stabenow's position on this?

STANGL

10:36:50
Oh, there's been a lot of discussion with Senator Stabenow about that, and a lot of agreement that because of the cut that that's enough. Folks have suffered enough and we should stop there rather than keep cutting down. Because there really isn't anywhere else to cut, $1.40 with no income at all is already too little and they're already done their share.

REHM

10:37:11
Indeed. Terri Stangl, executive director of the Center for Civil Justice in Flint and Saginaw, Mich. Thanks for joining us.

REHM

10:39:58
And welcome back. As we talk about hunger in America occurring not only in cities, but in rural areas all across the country. Here's an email from Steve in Cleveland, Ohio. He said, "My $6.29 daily food benefits ran out this month on Thursday, November 21st, despite judicious shopping, leaving me with 10 days to beg for food or eat other people's Thanksgiving leftovers." Jim Weill, what about the food banks around the country?

WEILL

10:40:50
Well, food banks and other emergency food providers are doing a fabulous job and they're really central to meeting the needs of people. But as both Triada and Terri pointed out, it's the government that's doing the heavy lifting. Both in terms of providing half the food in food banks, but also, if you look at SNAP, which is the biggest program and school meals, school lunch and breakfast and WIC and the federal Meals on Wheels program -- if you take these federal food programs, together they provide about 20 to 25 times as much food as the entire emergency food network.

WEILL

10:41:30
So when there's a big cut in these programs the food banks absolutely can't meet this need. And the government has the responsibility for meeting needs of low income people in this country, being the primary provider.

REHM

10:41:48
Here's an email signed, left-leaning, but over-taxed, which says, "I'm all for helping folks that need it, but before we give anyone $600 a month for food we should make sure they don't have an expensive smart phone, cable TV and a new car. And it should not be spent on junk food. Only nutritious food." You know, that brings me into mind of then President Ronald Reagan talking about the Cadillac moms on food stamps. Jerry?

HAGSTROM

10:42:34
I certainly understand the sentiments of the woman who wrote that email.

REHM

10:42:39
Or man.

HAGSTROM

10:42:40
Or man, I'm sorry. We didn't know which it was.

REHM

10:42:41
Right.

HAGSTROM

10:42:43
But the kind of monitoring that he or she is talking about there would cost an awful lot of money. And actually I don't think we really have a problem with Cadillac moms on food stamps these days. I mean, as I understand it, you know, the income cut for food stamps is $11,000 for a single person, $20,000 for a family of four. I mean these are really poor people. In terms of this asset test and the cars, one of the issues at the present time is that there were middleclass people who lost their jobs. Does it really make sense to force them to sell their cars and buy a junker when they need to go looking for a job?

HAGSTROM

10:43:31
So some of this is impractical, but at the present time with the use of these electronic benefit cards there really isn't a lot of fraud and abuse in the food stamp program.

REHM

10:43:41
Jim?

WEILL

10:43:41
Yeah, I'd just add to that, Jerry's point about people moving in and out of the program is crucial. People lose jobs in this country or they get divorced or they go from full-time to part-time work. The image of the program as being millions of people who are in for decades at a time is just wrong. People are constantly moving in and out of this program. And also, 80 percent of the people in this program are children, seniors, people with disabilities.

REHM

10:44:10
And joining us now by phone is Rev. Derrick Harkins. He's senior pastor at the 19th Street Baptist Church, here in Washington, D.C. Rev. Harkins, good to talk with you. What are you seeing at your church?

REV. DERRICK HARKINS

10:44:28
Well, good morning, Diane. It's good to be with you and your guests.

REHM

10:44:30
Thank you.

HARKINS

10:44:30
I can really echo the sentiments that were just expressed by your in-studio guest, and that is that we are truly seeing the fact that the crisis of hunger in America has really encroached on what might otherwise be defined as the middleclass or maybe stable working class. We are one of those frontline entities that do our best to fill in the gap, by way of our food pantry, which has been in existence for the last 20 years. Within the space of these last maybe 18 months we've seen a geometric increase in the numbers of individuals who've come and also the demographic spread of those who come for assistance is that much wider every week.

REHM

10:45:18
How much can churches like yours and other faith-based organizations really do to have an impact on chronic hunger problems?

HARKINS

10:45:31
It really is a matter of us doing our best to, in essence, be kind of an emergency gap filler, in partnership with the referral agencies that do refer individuals to us, families to us. We do our best to fill in the gap. Our policy, just to make it viable for us to be effective, is that families can come to us twice in a month, and that's in concert with other programs. Obviously, you've been talking about SNAP throughout the morning, but the deficit in terms of nutritious food is perilous for so many families, especially toward the end of the month.

HARKINS

10:46:09
And we do our best, as I said, through the great volunteer work of our members and others in the community, to try to fill that gap as best as we can.

REHM

10:46:18
Now, do you find any resistance? Do you hear from any of your parishioners saying, well, what about obesity? Why are these people eating the wrong foods? Maybe we should help them think in other ways about food.

HARKINS

10:46:40
Well, quite the opposite. First of all, we're privileged to be able to do our best to provide nutritious and well-rounded food in the supplies that we give to individuals. But I think it's, you know, the imagery and know, at all offense to your listener who wrote in about the issue of whether or not people have cell phones or new cars, etcetera, but I've always felt that that's a bit of a canard. Because I often say that there are individuals who'll be waiting for our food pantry and it's not clear as to whether they might be coming for a meeting or because of the situation they find themselves in, coming to seek assistance. Again, it is that broad a demographic.

HARKINS

10:47:19
Our membership sees it as incredibly important. And I'm saying our membership, but the larger community that we're a part of really see it as important to be supportive of individuals in really what are onerous circumstances.

REHM

10:47:31
Rev. Derrick Harkins, senior pastor at the 19th Street Baptist Church, here in Washington. Thank you so much for joining us.

HARKINS

10:47:44
Thank you.

REHM

10:47:45
Jim Weill, around the country how much of a difference can food banks and faith-based groups and soup kitchens and others really make? And is the government more and more relying on the private sector to take over?

WEILL

10:48:05
Well, certainly conservatives talk more about relying on the private sector. But, in fact, the government assistance has grown since the recession started and grown substantially. And that would be great. We would be in hugely more difficult, tragic circumstances if the government assistance program -- it's not just food stamps, but some others -- hadn't grown to meet the needs in the recession. Food banks and food pantries are doing a fabulous job when people run out of benefits towards the end of the month. When people apply and are waiting for benefits because the bureaucracy takes two weeks or a month or it's six weeks to get them benefits.

WEILL

10:48:42
And also, food banks and food pantries more and more are doing advocacy around the federal food programs because they see what's happening. In a way, when they talk about the damage from the November 1st cuts, they're really canaries in the coal mine. And that's a key function they serve as well.

REHM

10:49:00
And now, joining us by phone from Austin, Texas, is Celia Cole. She's CEO of the Texas Food Bank Network. Celia, we don't ordinarily think of Texans needing food assistance. Tell me how many families you're seeing.

MS. CELIA COLE

10:49:23
Well, about one in five households in Texas experience food insecurity. That's about 4.8 million Texans. And we know that one in four kids live in those hungry households. You've heard talk of how hunger touches every area of the state. The same is true in Texas. Because we're so geographically and demographically diverse, we have hungry everywhere and the circumstances leading to hunger and food insecurity is different in different communities. And you know that it's a big problem in urban areas. It's also a big problem in rural areas in Texas. People in rural counties actually benefit more from SNAP per capita than urban areas.

MS. CELIA COLE

10:49:59
We have a huge generational poverty problem along the border where some of the poorest counties in the state. But I want to touch on something that I've sort of tried calling ironic poverty, which is the poverty out in west Texas that's resulted from the oil boom, which has created huge profits for many and a booming economy overall, but actually plunged a lot of families, and a lot of seniors in particular, into poverty because it's raised the cost of living beyond that which they can afford.

REHM

10:50:27
I see.

COLE

10:50:29
The other irony there is that those are areas of the state represented by Congressman Neugebauer and Conaway, two of the members of the conference committee who are defending the cuts in the House proposed Farm Bill.

REHM

10:50:40
And what about the governor?

COLE

10:50:44
Well, the governor has been largely silent on the Farm Bill.

REHM

10:50:49
Just silent. You know, it seems to me that around the time of holidays you probably get more people offering to help, but then toward the end of the year or the first of the new year perhaps it dries up.

COLE

10:51:08
Well, we are grateful for the outpouring of support that we from generous Texans. And I actually think many people around the holidays feel more compelled to give because nobody wants to be, you know, experiencing a wonderful holiday dinner and be thinking about their neighbors in need. So we're grateful for the time that people give, for the donations of food and money, but what we really want right now is for people to raise their voice in this debate and to speak out against cuts to SNAP. Because like everyone has said before me today, charity cannot make up for the lost SNAP benefits.

COLE

10:51:48
In Texas alone, our food banks distribute enough food for about 250 million meals per year. The November 1 cuts to SNAP will take 180 million meals off the table over the coming year. And if you look at the cuts proposed in the Farm Bill and combine that with the November 1 cut, that exceeds that total annual meal distribution by every member food bank feeding America across the country.

REHM

10:52:12
Celia Cole, she's CEO of the Texas Food Bank Network. Thank you for joining us.

COLE

10:52:22
Thank you.

REHM

10:52:23
And, you know, I am absolutely stunned that we have not had a single telephone call during this program. It is my assumption that people are both learning and not wishing to talk about it. What's your feeling, Jim?

WEILL

10:52:47
Well, I think often people in this country don't like talking about hunger and poverty. We don't always recognize it in our communities. Interestingly, in polls people identify a national hunger problem more than they identify a hunger problem in their communities. In part because people aren't starving in America, it's not as visible. It's an invisible problem, but it's an invisible problem that not only is a moral problem for this country, but causes health damage, increases health costs, causes educational and productivity damage.

REHM

10:53:22
Jerry?

HAGSTROM

10:53:23
I was so interested by the woman from Texas saying we want people to speak up because I think that in terms of saving this program and the benefits that people need to talk to their congressmen or the conservative congressman in a neighboring district.

REHM

10:53:36
Jerry Hagstrom of The Hagstrom Report and National Journal. Jim Weill, president of Food Research and Action Center. Thank you so much for being here.

WEILL

10:53:50
Thank you.

REHM

10:53:50
And thanks for listening. I'm sorry. I had my timing off. We've still got a couple of minutes. And I see that there is a caller on line two. Let's go to Joseph, in Kitty Hawk, N.C. You're on the air.

JOSEPH

10:54:14
Hello, Ms. Rehm.

REHM

10:54:16
Hi.

JOSEPH

10:54:16
I really enjoy your show.

REHM

10:54:17
Thank you.

JOSEPH

10:54:18
I would like to share some of the experiences that I've had with all of these cuts. I was a factory worker and I got in an accident and I found myself on SSD. Now, legally, over the past year or so here in North Carolina, not only have we addressed the cuts in our food stamps, but at the same time the governor is giving away close to half a billion dollars in tax credits to companies to come here to produce very few jobs. I don't eat high on the hog. I try to be frugal. My food stamps were at one time $150 a month, they're now $45. I got a small subsidy for my rent, which decreased an almost $50. When I go to the store to buy food and I'm frugal, I can't get out of there in the beginning of the month with less than $125 and I don't have a lot of food.

JOSEPH

10:55:10
I wait until I get my $45 in SNAP towards the end of the month to hold things together. I hate to hurt that callers feelings, but yes, I do have a cell phone. It's an insurance phone. I get 250 free minutes. I spend another $20 on the phone. I talk to my friends, family and doctor. The food budget -- and with everything decreasing and putting this weight on what little cash I have left over after I pay my rent, impacts in my ability to buy clothing, to buy little things you need around the house, to buy your personal care items.

REHM

10:55:46
I'm glad you called, Joseph. Thank you very much for that. Jerry, do you want to comment?

HAGSTROM

10:55:54
Yes. I think stories like this are extremely important because for members of Congress it's the personal story, rather than the statistics that matter. And they need to hear more of these personal cases to realize the problems that are in their own districts.

WEILL

10:56:10
I agree, absolutely. Members need to hear these stories. We all need to hear these stories because the people who are struggling in this country, not just with hunger, but with disability and illness and other problems are our neighbors and our relatives and our friends. And we all need to be aware of what's happening and understand how to meet their needs.

REHM

10:56:30
Jim Weill, I’m glad you and Jerry Hagstrom have helped us understand. Thanks for being here.

WEILL

10:56:37
Thank you.

REHM

10:56:38
And thanks to all of you for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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