After witnessing the national media coverage of the Chicago Public Schools Teacher’s Strike of 2012, one distinct and disturbing image still haunts me. I clearly remember many parents asking, in fact begging City officials to keep the schools open as it was the only way to ensure their children received a hot, healthy meal.
Of course, the issue of school lunches became a hot topic locally last March when we learned that in several instances Minnesota school children, including those eligible for reduced-priced lunches, were being denied a hot lunch if their account had insufficient funds. This story caused an uproar among parents, politicians and advocacy groups, forcing several school administrators to explain such policies. Shortly after the story broke, Minnesota Senator Al Franken proposed that the federal government step in to cover the full cost for students eligible for reduced-priced lunch.
However, when considering both the situation in Chicago and Minnesota’s school lunch dilemma, I contend that the crisis is much deeper and relates to the larger issue of food insecurity. Food insecurity, which is defined as limited or uncertain access to nutritious, affordable food, has increased significantly in America during the last decade.
Many low-income families suffering from food insecurity don’t often know where their next meal will come from. Some families make the tactical decision to skip meals in order to stretch their budget.
Food shelves do help, and food-shelf usage in the State of Minnesota alone has nearly doubled in the last two decades. Still, they only provide limited and temporary assistance to low-income households.
Around the time of the Chicago Public Schools strike, University of Minnesota researchers published a study in the American Journal of Public Health revealing that nearly 40 percent of Twin Cities households had experienced food insecurity during the previous 12 months. A follow-up story posted by the nonprofit online news service MinnPost noted that this figure “is almost four times higher than previously believed and more than two-and-a-half times the national average.”
There have been a number of strategies both locally and nationally to address this emergency, including outreach initiatives designed to help eligible households secure benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. In 2009, the New York Times utilized data from state agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Census Bureau to develop an interactive web map illustrating food-stamp usage across every county in America.
Here in Ramsey County, for example, it was determined that only 60 percent of eligible households were receiving SNAP benefits. During the last few years, a partnership between the Minnesota Department of Human Services, the Greater Twin Cities United Way, and local Community Action agencies helped to significantly increase the number of households receiving SNAP, including thousands more in Ramsey County alone.
Notwithstanding such efforts to fight hunger and food insecurity, the United States Congress passed a new farm bill last February that will reduce SNAP benefits in the coming fiscal year. In response to Congress, the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities states that this farm bill “will mean a benefit cut for nearly all of the nearly 48 million SNAP recipients — 87 percent of whom live in households with children, seniors, or people with disabilities.”
In Minnesota, more than 550,000 will be directly affected, including 239,000 children and 114,000 who are elderly and/or disabled. Three states — New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania — boldly announced plans last spring to mitigate SNAP cuts to their eligible residents, and other states could still conceivably follow that lead.
Still, the outlook is bleak for far too many of our fellow citizens
Dr. Martin Luther King famously said that “a budget is a moral document.” It is a reflection our society’s core values and allows history to judge how we have treated and continue to treat one another. I find it unconscionable that today, in 2014, we can still tolerate a young child, or for that matter any of our citizens, having to go to bed hungry.
Clarence Hightower is executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street, St. Paul, MN 55104.