Jews fight for food stamps

Jews fight for food stamps

As many Americans worried about the wide implications of the fiscal cliff debate at the end of last year, Jewish groups concerned about domestic hunger issues fought to protect one issue in particular: food stamp funding. 

In a way, they won. The New Year’s Eve fiscal cliff deal included a nine-month extension of the 2008 Farm Bill, a bundle of legislation that allocated approximately $200 billion for food stamps and other nutrition programs. 

But the feeling is one of “temporary reprieve,” said Abby Leibman, president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

A national nonprofit working to end hunger, MAZON was among several groups that opposed recent proposals by the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee to cut funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 

Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, SNAP provides monthly benefits for food purchases to low-income individuals and families. Its benefits traditionally have been issued via paper food stamps, but plastic electronic cards are increasingly being used instead.

This past year, as Congress debated where to cut spending to avert the so-called fiscal cliff, MAZON, Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS), American Jewish World Service and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs advocated for the protection of SNAP funding. 

“There’s no reason in this country that people should be hungry, and we have an actual program [SNAP] that not only feeds people, but keeps them out of poverty,” said Ben Suarato, a spokesperson for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

In June, the Senate proposed a farm bill that would have cut $4.5 billion from SNAP over 10 years. One month later, the House Agriculture Committee proposed a bill that would have cut approximately $16 billion from SNAP over the same period. Despite these efforts, Congress passed a short-term extension of the 2008 bill, keeping SNAP funding intact. 

SNAP made up the bulk of the expenses of the 2008 Farm Bill, which expired in October and which also sets funding for agricultural, conservation and forestry programs.

Nationwide, more than 46 million Americans receive benefits through the program. In Los Angeles County, 1 million people benefited in September 2011 from CalFresh, the statewide version of SNAP, according to California Food Policy Advocates, a statewide organization dedicated to increasing Californians’ access to nutritious and affordable food. 

How many in this pool of enrollees are Jewish is not known, but based on figures provided by local demographer Pini Herman, thousands of Jews in Los Angeles County could be affected by any cuts to food stamp funding.

Herman, principal at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research and author of the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey, said there are as many as 55,000 Jews in the Los Angeles area living in poverty, and most of them are eligible for food stamps.

The average SNAP household receives $324.80 per month, according to Shirley Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services, which administers CalFresh.

While groups like MAZON and JFS were glad of the farm bill extension, cuts to SNAP will again be on the table as Congress addresses federal financial issues in the future, said Nancy Volpert, director of public policy at JFS. 

“The likelihood is that those numbers [proposed cuts of $4.5 billion and $16 billion] are going to come back,” she said. 

Such cuts would have a domino effect that would have people turning to food banks and pantries for groceries, putting more pressure on those agencies, explained Michael Flood, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which supplies groceries to more than 1,000 distribution sites, including the SOVA pantries run by JFS.

The concept of food justice has been on the Jewish radar for a long time. Synagogues have made anti-hunger campaigns an integral part of their social justice agendas; Jewish nonprofits formed to focus singularly on food insecurity; The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has raised funds to fight hunger; and umbrella organizations for various denominations have strived to bring more awareness to the issue.

The reason is simple: 

“If people don’t have enough to eat, they can’t do anything,” MAZON’s Leibman said. “They can’t learn, they can’t work, they can’t get well, [and] they can’t keep themselves well. It is the most essential part of living for a human being.” 

In April 2012, MAZON had its annual board meeting in Washington, D.C., and attendees spoke with members of the Senate and the House to express their support for SNAP and other nutrition programs included in the farm bill. 

The debate over the farm bill last year led MAZON, American Jewish World Service, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and others to form the Jewish Farm Bill Working Group. Promoting domestic and global food security, the coalition sent a letter to Congress the week of Jan. 20 that urged legislators to think of “those in need in the U.S.” when negotiating a new farm bill. 

JFS, too, has advocated for legislation that supports food stamps. To reduce barriers in accessing SNAP benefits, the agency pushed for the passage of a bill in 2011 that removed a fingerprinting requirement from CalFresh applications.

Volpert said she is responsible for educating representatives of L.A. County on the importance of CalFresh to JFS clients. She said CalFresh is “critically important.”

One hundred percent of the people living in shelters run by JFS are enrolled in CalFresh, Volpert said. Through its SOVA program, JFS distributes free groceries to more than 12,000 people in need per month, but the organization does not track how many of its SOVA clients are enrolled in CalFresh. 

Leaders in Washington, including U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), have expressed support for SNAP. 

“Ensuring adequate funding for SNAP will continue to be a top priority for him as the House considers farm bill legislation later this year,” said Karen Lightfoot, a spokeswoman for Waxman. 

As indicated by the spending cuts proposed by the Senate and the House, not everyone in Congress is as supportive. Last summer, U.S. Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), as a member of the House Agriculture Committee, voted in support of a version of the farm bill that would  have cut more than $16 billion from food stamps over 10 years. His office did not return repeated requests by the Journal for comment. 

Moving forward, SNAP’s in-limbo status means that Jewish anti-hunger advocates have their work cut out for them. As Leibman put it: “We now have to engage in a lot of work to make certain that that safety net stays in place.”