In the dying days of this Congress, food activists face an awful choice: Should we support the increased funding of children's school lunches, even if it means taking money from a family's food stamps? That is what's on the table in a version of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill passed by the Senate, in which an improved school meal program will be paid for by cutting back $2 billion in funding for food stamps in 2013.
No one disputes that poor children need to be better fed, but government food stamp entitlements are the last tatters of a safety net for many millions of people. Evidence? Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that 50.2 million Americans were food insecure in 2009, a mere 1 million more than the year before. Although that's still one in six people, the figure was a victory. Given the soaring rates of poverty and unemployment in 2009, there could have been considerably more food insecure people.
You'd think we'd be ashamed of those numbers.
We need to expand both SNAP and school lunch programs. That means rejecting the Sophie's Choice between families and children. Behind the logic of paying for school lunches with food stamp funding is an assumption that, if poor families are sinking, "save women and children first." The trouble is that cutting the food stamp program will hurt women more than men. Look at who goes hungry in the U.S.: over a third of all single-female-headed households who have children are food insecure. No other household demographic is as likely to be going hungry. So, cut SNAP and who gets hurt? America's poorest women.
You'd think we'd be ashamed of that, too.
To put this all into perspective, we know from the OMB that the cost of extending the Bush tax cuts will be $5 trillion over the next ten years. American children are being hurt by hunger. Their families are too. The idea of choosing between them would be morally repugnant if, indeed, it were a choice—but what becomes increasingly clear when you look both at the economics and sociology of hunger is that you can't save one group without saving the other. There is no Sophie's Choice here—there are simply degrees of harm that we allow to be inflicted on the poor.
Our legislators are huffing and puffing to extend those tax cuts - while soberly shaking their heads and expressing their faux-sorrow that in these perilous economic times that we must all tighten our belts and accept some suffering. Will Congress really take food from the mouths of children so as not to inconvenience the rich?
cross-posted at MainSt/workingamerica.org