Food is a fundamental human right

At the end of February, with President Donald Trump’s recent proposal to decimate federal nutrition programs hanging over us, more than 1,200 advocates from all over the nation gathered in Washington, D.C. for the annual Anti-Hunger Policy Conference.

Before the conference began, I visited the National Museum of American History to see an exhibit about food in America. I was struck by how many food issues raised decades ago remain relevant today, a reminder both of how far we’ve come and how much is left to do to ensure that everyone in our nation has the fuel they need to grow, learn, work and reach their full potential.

Last year’s conference was marked by a vague but palpable anxiety about what the new administration would bring. While we knew the outlook wasn’t good for struggling families, the president hadn’t yet released his first budget proposal or many specifics in terms of policy.

Since then, we’ve seen multiple attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, passage of a tax overhaul that will primarily benefit the wealthiest Americans, and plans to pay for it by devastating the services that provide a basic standard of living for those who already have the least. We’ve seen cruel anti-immigrant measures rip families apart and proposals that are scaring families away from food benefits for which they are legally eligible.

While this year’s conference included the usual sessions on food insecurity trends, federal nutrition programs and state initiatives to increase healthy food access, there was a stronger emphasis on advocacy, including effective messaging in a difficult political environment and amplifying the voices of people who have lived experience with hunger.

The highlight of the conference for me was hearing New York Times columnist Charles Blow speak about race and poverty in America. Connecting the dots between historical policies that explicitly denied land, food and other basic resources to people of color while guaranteeing Whites a certain level of success, and the implicit racism of contemporary policy decisions, Blow explained, “There are no mistakes in America. There are no coincidences.”

Julie Cassidy and the League’s Michigan anti-hunger partners met with Senator Gary Peters in Washington.

Julie Cassidy and the League’s Michigan anti-hunger partners met with Senator Gary Peters in Washington.

The things I learned at the conference came in handy when I headed to Capitol Hill with about 20 of the League’s Michigan anti-hunger partners to tell members of our state’s congressional delegation just how important federal nutrition programs are in their districts, and urge them to protect our funding and policy priorities in the upcoming negotiations over the Farm Bill (the legislation that authorizes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other vital food programs).

The experience came to a fitting close on the flight home when I got so bored that I actually flipped through the airline’s magazine, which happened to feature actor Viola Davis and her new gig as an advocate for an anti-hunger nonprofit organization. She explained how her own experience with childhood food insecurity motivated her to get involved: “When you’re hungry, you can’t think, you can’t plan, you can’t really function because your only concern is getting food…When you are deprived of things, that is on the forefront of your mind.”

 

Quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

That deprivation needs to be at the forefront of all our minds as Congress debates the Farm Bill and other budget and policy decisions regarding the rest of the safety net. Funding cuts and eligibility restrictions temporarily move people out of the government’s expense column, but not to good health, financial self-sufficiency or economic productivity. Now is the time to raise your voice for individual well-being, strong families and national prosperity. Sign on to this letter to Congress in defense of federal nutrition programs and keep up with SNAP and other federal budget happenings at http://www.frac.org/action.

 

–Julie Cassidy

 

 

Protecting food assistance to preserve our future

While in Washington, D.C. last month for the 2017 National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference (AHPC), I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. I was particularly fascinated by the exhibit on the Inka, who developed an expansive system to store surplus food for redistribution during hard times to ensure the empire’s survival. It was a timely experience since the AHPC was bringing together more than 1,300 anti-hunger advocates from all over the country just as the federal food assistance programs that so many American families rely on to survive—programs that have traditionally had bipartisan support—have come under attack by the president and congressional Republicans.

Conference presenters outlined threats to the mainstays of federal food assistance, most notably a proposal to convert funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from an entitlement structure to a block grant. Recognizing the interconnection of hunger, health and the economy, speakers also touched on feared cuts and structural changes to Medicaid and several tax credits that encourage work and empower families with low income to achieve economic independenceThemes that came up over and over again were the disproportionate impact of poverty and hunger on children, people with disabilities and people of color, and the disturbing effect that recent hateful, dishonest rhetoric and changes in immigration enforcement policy have had on access to public benefits by eligible immigrants and their children.

Under such gloomy circumstances, what can anti-hunger advocates to do to protect the programs that have lifted so many, enabling them to contribute to the American economy and society? How can we be effective when we’re on the defensive? Conference speakers and attendees alike spoke of the power of storytelling and shared values in framing statistics in a way that humanizes the frequently maligned recipients of food assistance and connects federal policy changes to the lives of real people in our communities and neighborhoods. (Note: If you receive food assistance and would like to share your story, please email our Communications Director Alex Rossman.)

Armed with lots of new information and propelled by the energy of my fellow conference attendees, I was proud to join a well-organized group of Michigan anti-hunger advocates in visiting nearly all of the members of the Michigan congressional delegation to educate them about the impact of federal nutrition programs on their constituents’ lives and the critical need to protect the funding and structure that make these programs so effective.

As the Inka wisely recognized, a robust nutrition assistance program isn’t merely charity to people having a tough time, it’s an essential investment in the nation’s future. At this critical time in our history, it’s vital that stakeholders from all sectors, ranging from anti-hunger advocates and human service providers to the healthcare and agriculture industries, band together to defend the food programs that help today’s children grow into tomorrow’s parents, workers and leaders. To get the latest news and find out how you can get involved in the federal fight against hunger, check out the Food Research and Action Center.

— Julie Cassidy