The food banks face a blizzard of problems — what Feeding America calls a perfect storm. Food prices are going up, adding to their costs, in part because of the high demand for commodities to create biofuels. This also means few surpluses in commodities for the federal commodities program to donate.
Food manufacturers, who partner often in an admirable way with nonprofit groups, are facing their own squeeze in the tough economy and are responding as one would expect in the market, seeking greater efficiencies, which means fewer donations. Charitable contributions are harder to come by as more Americans feel the economic squeeze. State and local governments are cutting back on social services.
And the federal government is cutting back dramatically.
Take the food stamp program (now called SNAP, which stands for supplemental nutrition assistance program) the crown jewel of the federal response after the CBS documentary in 1968. This is not a program for the comfortable; the average gross monthly income for a SNAP family is $711, and four of five participating households include a child, an elderly person or a disabled one. Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget would move the program to a block grant and cut $127 billion over 10 years.
Then there is the Emergency Food Assistance Program, the federal commodity assistance program that provides much of the food going to food banks, in some cases half or more of what the food banks give to the poor. It has declined precipitously over the past few years and is on the block for more hits as the pressure to freeze or reduce all discretionary spending increases.
There is a core concept in the Talmud called “Tzedakah,” the religious obligation to engage in charity and philanthropy, to help those who need help. We need fiscal discipline, but we cannot turn our backs on our fellow human beings.
Beyond Tzedakah, there is pragmatic self-interest. Hunger adds to obesity, as people eat less nutritious foods and more fattening foods, and to other health problems that add to our health care demands and costs.
One answer is an enhanced tax credit for businesses that donate food to nonprofits. Another is to reconsider the steep cuts in these budgets at the worst possible time.
And for all of us who can, it should also mean opening up our checkbooks a little more for organizations such as Feeding America, Share Our Strength, the Capital Area Food Bank, So Others Might Eat, Martha’s Table, Bread for the City, the Central Union Mission and others here in Washington, D.C., and around the country that are laboring to feed those in need.
Norman Ornstein is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.