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

 

 

Waiter, there’s a rotten policy in my soup

Food metaphors abound in the realm of public policy—the economic pie, the Medicare doughnut hole, and of course, making sausage. So when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently issued a letter to states concerning Medicaid work requirements, I couldn’t help but think of another, lesser known political food analogy: the policy primeval soup, in which political actors store their desired policy solutions in search of problems while they wait for the political stars to align in their favor.

The CMS letter correctly acknowledges that health status is about more than access to healthcare, pointing specifically to education, employment and income as important social determinants of health. Unfortunately, CMS uses this fact as a convenient front to scoop up the work requirement, a misguided and overly simplistic policy idea that’s been floating around in the soup for decades, and spill it all over state Medicaid programs.

Poor Health Alphabet Soup 350x272It’s obvious that this move isn’t really about improving anyone’s health, as a report released by the League this week points out, especially when viewed in the broader context of Republican proposals to decimate the federal services that have a positive impact on virtually all social determinants of health for people with low incomes.

Since we’re already on the subject of food, let’s talk about hunger, which triggers a domino effect of poor health outcomes with high social and economic costs. This year, President Donald Trump is calling for a number of devastating cuts and changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that would leave children, seniors and people with disabilities without enough to eat.

Despite the critical connection between housing and health, the president wants to cut safe, affordable housing programs and increase the burden on participating families. To make matters worse, by slashing the corporate tax rate, the recently enacted tax bill reduces the value of the low-income housing tax credit—a move that’s expected to discourage the construction of 250,000 affordable units, which are already in alarmingly short supply, over the next 10 years.

Regarding education, the president wants to slash billions of dollars from K-12 and funnel millions into unhealthy abstinence-only sex education programs. Furthermore, he seeks to expand the use of taxpayer-funded private school vouchers, which have been shown to largely benefit families that can already afford to send their children to private schools and enable discrimination that drives educational and health disparities.

If this were really about health, the president wouldn’t prioritize law enforcement based on the toxic ingredients of xenophobia and racism or let healthcare providers discriminate against their fellow humans in need of medical care.

Don’t be fooled: the Medicaid work requirement is merely a pretense for kicking people off Medicaid, something conservative policymakers have wanted to do for a long time. Combined with the proposed cuts to all of the other services that help struggling families maintain a basic standard of living, it will only reinforce the very economic conditions that create health disparities in the first place.

Poverty and its associated health impacts are complex problems that can’t be solved by simply requiring people to work. We need policies and budgets that actually promote living wages, job training, educational opportunity, healthy food access, healthy housing, transportation, quality child care, freedom from violence and trauma, and racial equity. If this were my favorite cooking competition show, I’d say the chef who created this disingenuous policy soup should be chopped in the appetizer round.

— 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

SNAP: Fighting the long-term effects of hunger

I admit I do not understand what it feels like to be truly hungry. Sure, I’ve forgotten my breakfast or lunch from time to time, but I’ve always been able to count on the fact that there would be food in my cupboards. I cannot imagine the short- and long-term effects of hunger.

Yet, for many Michiganians, and many children, hunger is still a real problem. According to a recent federal report, between 2013 and 2015, almost 15% of Michigan households struggled to put food on their tables. Nationally, this rate is higher among households with children. (more…)

Hunger, poverty and the plagues of today

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I recently attended a very special interfaith seder. Part of the Jewish faith, a seder is a ritual in which a community or a family retells the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. While seders are always a powerful experience for me, this one was particularly poignant.

That’s because this was a “Hunger Seder,” following materials developed by Mazon, a Jewish organization dedicated to ending hunger. Instead of the traditional focus of celebrating the Jewish people’s freedom, this seder also looked at the people who are still struggling today, in particular veterans, and what we can do to support them. The program for the Hunger Seder said it best, “We come together today with them in mind, determined to realize our vision of a day when we will all be truly free from the oppression of hunger.” (more…)

Aging baby boomers face huge hurdle with food assistance asset test

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When most of us think of hunger and those in need, we think of children. As our recent Kids Count Data Book points out, too many Michigan children are currently facing poverty and hunger. But there’s another group of people who are also struggling with hunger, and it might come as a surprise: baby boomers. (more…)