The farm bill is again the topic of conversation in Congress, and we share our concern with many others throughout the state regarding the proposed cuts to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The farm bill legislation that contains SNAP is due to be renewed this year, yet just recently a $40 billion cut in the program was passed by a close margin in the U.S. House.
In the Tampa Bay area, including Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, SNAP provides access to essential food resources for our residents each month. In June 2013 alone, the program reached 427,000 people in the two counties. Nearly half of these recipients — 47 percent — were children and seniors.
SNAP is our first line of defense against hunger in the United States, and it picks up when our economy is down and people who want to work are still unable to find a job. Currently, the program effectively and efficiently helps more than 47 million low-income Americans, and we cannot afford to undermine these efforts.
At the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, we envision a community where all of its members can meet life's basic needs of food, shelter and access to health care. Adequate, nutritious food for adults and children creates the backbone for good health, learning, workforce development and so much more.
Last year our food bank collected and distributed 2.5 million pounds of food through our own food pantry, community kitchen and 60 other local organizations. While that was a record for us, about double that amount of food is needed for south Pinellas County alone. Many of the families coming to us for emergency food services are already supplementing their food budget with SNAP benefits. Cutting their SNAP benefits will not only affect their budgets but also their health, ability to learn at school and perform in the workforce.
At the Beth Dillinger Foundation, we address childhood hunger through our Nourish to Flourish program, which provides additional food for children to take home on the weekends, but we know this is just one method to ensure that families are getting the nutritious food they need for adequate health and learning. The SNAP program and other federal child nutrition programs are capable of reaching children in all areas of our counties, where our organization currently only has the capacity to serve a select number of schools. It takes various methods and approaches to make sure that our children do not feel hunger.
Some say that nonprofits and faith-based organizations should be able to meet the need of our food-insecure without SNAP. That is just not true.
Southeastern religious leaders gathered a few days ago to make a point that food banks, pantries and churches would not be able to make up for such a loss in SNAP benefits. It is estimated that each religious congregation in the United States would need to increase its food assistance by nearly $15,000 each year for the next 10 years to fill in that gap.
As our government begins the discussion to make further decisions on spending, protecting SNAP should be a priority. The program protects our most vulnerable, including veterans, the working poor, seniors and children, as well as contributes to the efforts of nonprofit organizations in the Tampa Bay area. It must be stressed that both private and public services are needed to truly meet the needs of our residents, all of whom deserve the right to healthy and nutritious food.
Beth A. Houghton is executive director of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic. Bob Dillinger is the public defender for Pinellas and Pasco counties and the co-founder, with his wife, of the Beth Dillinger Foundation. The authors wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.