[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ood insecurity. That’s a new term for many. In a fashion, it means not knowing where your next meal is coming from. It can also mean not having access to the kinds of food that your body needs or knowing that, at certain times in the year, because you eat at school and know the break periods are going to pose a challenge, you lose the joy of temporarily being out of school. Sometimes, perhaps the worst of all, it means going hungry. That should not happen in America, even though anyone who knows American history knows we have experienced such scarcity many times. Food insecurity is especially a problem in rural America.

Many of you that read RHQ and my previous columns know that I am a native Texan.  I have never gone hungry, and at times in my life that was painfully obvious. I also recall that we always had a garden growing up because I often labored in it as one of my chores.  My mother and others in our extended family canned, pickled and otherwise found ways to preserve foods we grew or that were cheap in their season. We raised our own beef, as well. Well, not really; we raised a slaughter cow for our neighbors as they did for us so we didn’t have to think that we were eating our pet. We ate everything that was served, and lots of leftovers. Waste was frowned upon. Even still, when deer season rolled around we always got our tag limit, and while I thought it was just sporting, it really was a protein staple of our diet. I can remember seasons in life when times were hard and cash was so limited that we depended on every single one of these things to feed our big family.

The Texas that I grew up in no longer exists. The government is more involved in everything, or so it seems, from the various farm bills to the impending federal funding cuts that affect food. One important program in rural areas where we have known disparities in nutrition and food security is SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP provides a welfare benefit to needy families so they can buy healthy food as they move to self-sufficiency. Now, I’ve heard all the stories about how someone with an Electronic Benefit Transfer card was ahead of you in the grocery store, buying some things you judge to be inappropriate. But the fact is that many rural people need this program. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already finalized a new rule — which goes into effect on April 1 —revising requirements for SNAP eligibility that will likely hit rural Americans the hardest.

Here are some fast facts that might help you to better understand. U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that, since 2012, SNAP participation is highest among households in rural areas and small towns (under 2,500 people) and NOT in major metros, as used to be case. And while SNAP does help low-income Americans purchase food, the program also supports farmers in all 50 states. It’s part of the farm bill, and it ensures stability to the market forces that often work against small family farms.  According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, every $1 billion of retail generated by SNAP creates:

  • $340 million in farm production
  • $110 million in farm value-added
  • 3,300 farm jobs.

That’s a jobs bill for rural America.

Consider this: For every $1 billion in cuts to SNAP funding, 11,437 jobs would be lost. The Agriculture Department changes are projected to slice $4.5 billion from the program over five years.

I wonder how many that read this go to farmers markets. They are growing in popularity because they often supply more organically grown and nutritious foods. These farms are mostly the livelihood of small, family farming operations. Across the US in 2017, which is the most current data we have, $24.4 million in SNAP benefits were redeemed at farmers markets, a 35 percent increase from 2012.  But that is threatened now with the proposed cuts. To my eye, that looks penny wise and pound foolish.

Few would know that 92 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes at or below the poverty line, or that 56 percent go to households at or below half of the poverty line (about $10,390 for a family of three in 2018). According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP kept 8.4 million people out of poverty in 2015, including 3.8 million children. SNAP lifted 2 million children above half of the poverty line in 2015, more than any other program. Folks, if we can’t feed our kids, then what are we thinking is more important?

So back to that phrase, “food insecurity.” According to the USDA, SNAP participation for 6 months was associated with about a 10 percent decrease in food insecurity, including households with food insecure children. If spending on this little item in the federal budget continues to decline, you will witness a time machine event and travel back to the levels of expenditures of 1995. As it is now, SNAP is not contributing to long-term budgetary pressures. But that too could change, because one of the tactics under consideration is to limit states’ determination over the implementation of SNAP, and also to impose more bureaucracy on those states that subscribe the program. Call me crazy, but won’t that simply raise the administrative costs?

I normally don’t do this, but I am going to ask you to do something about SNAP.  Of course, the first SNAP rules change has already been made, even though more than 140,000 people submitted comments to the USDA – most of them negative, according to reporting. But two additional pending rules will cut even more, possibly leaving millions without benefits. Weigh in on this please. We have hungry families with hungry kids out here and we need to speak out. That is responsible citizenship, and if I know one thing, we Texans are good citizens.

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Dr. Billy U. Philips Jr. is Publisher of Rural Health Quarterly and Director of the F. Marie Hall Institute for Rural and Community Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.