Finding Food Justice

From the October 2012 PNL #818

Susan Adair & Donna Muhs-McCarten

Food and militarism may seem like two different topics, but when you scratch beneath the surface, there is, of course, a relationship between them. As the military budget increases, the current “Farm Bill” (Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012), which is now under review in the House, may pass with substantial cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—commonly known as food stamps. More and more costly military expenditures are considered the priority for US security while the need for SNAP, along with poverty in general, has increased steadily over the years as the wealth of the nation “trickles up” to the top.

Food Stamps Then and Now
Food stamps were introduced at the end of the Great Depression, and the program terminated in 1943 as unemployment and food surpluses decreased. In order to strengthen the agricultural economy and improve access for low-income households, President Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964. The 2008 Farm Bill renamed food stamps to SNAP and digitized the transfer of funds to a debit card (EBT).

The Farm Bill comes up for renewal every five years. It was passed in the Senate earlier this year with a $4.5 billion cut from the SNAP portion. The unpassed House version proposes a $16 billion cut, meaning that three million people could lose access to SNAP across the nation—228,400 in NYS alone. The existing farm bill expires September 30, and Congress may extend it for a year. If the House version passes, compromise must be reached before the President signs.

Food Security or Military Security
What people need for food security is jobs, according to Thomas Slater, director of the Food Bank of Central New York. However, in lieu of major economic recovery and policy shifts favorable to the poor, food stamps and food pantries are the nutritional safety nets available to the unemployed, disabled, seniors, and youths. While the US fights its enemies, ostensibly for the sake of security at home, food security—the ability to access fresh, wholesome, nutritious and culturally appropriate food—isn’t even on the list of what “Homeland Security” is about!

Consider this: the proposed 2013 cost for the war in Afghanistan is $88 billion, compared to the most recent Farm Bill allocation (in 2008) of $70 billion a year. Meanwhile, one in six people in the US (over 46 million, including over 15 million children) live in poverty. Increasingly, the people receiving food stamps are the working poor. The federal minimum wage is still $7.25 per hour—not enough to bring a family of three across the poverty line ($19,090 per year).

While the alternative to a federal safety net for the hungry may be churches, food pantries, civic organizations, and individuals picking up the slack, there aren’t enough of these groups to feed everyone in need. It is wrong that working people in the US cannot get enough to eat while billions of dollars are spent in our name to conduct immoral wars.

Food Access in Syracuse
According to the Onondaga County Department of Social Services, use of food stamps has increased locally 81% in the past four years. The City of Syracuse recognizes food access as a key issue. With input from the community, the Department of Planning and Sustainability is now in the final stages of submitting a Food Access plan to the Common Council to address local food security issues.

There is also local grassroots work towards food access justice. The Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS), of which SPC is a member organization, is advocating for food security measures in the Syracuse area through the work of its Food Access Task Force. The Task Force closely monitors the opening and closing of local supermarkets and has considered such actions as a Food Summit and the development of a Food System Network.

Currently the ACTS Task Force is raising awareness about the SNAP appropriations in the 2012 Farm Bill. Come to the Public Action Meeting (see box) to show support for House Resolution 760, which asks that all proposed cuts to SNAP be repealed. The 24th District congressional candidates are invited to this meeting and will be asked to take a position on this resolution.

SPC members Susan and Donna serve on the ACTS Food Access Task Force.