To the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture: Keep our troops fed

This testimony was presented to the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Nutrition on Jan. 12 

Distinguished members of the Subcommittee on Nutrition and Committee on Agriculture, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today.

I am president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national nonprofit working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the U.S. and Israel. 

In response to learning that a startling number of our grantee partners were providing food assistance to a growing number of military families and veterans, MAZON’s board of directors has made these issues a core priority for our education and advocacy work.  Through an exhaustive search for accurate data from government and private sources, we learned the following:

First, we found that hundreds of thousands of veterans are experiencing food insecurity, and aren’t receiving assistance from their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or other available benefit programs. 

Food insecurity among veterans — old and young — is nearly double the prevalence of food insecurity and very low food security among the general U.S. population. 

Second, we also uncovered serious indicators of food insecurity among members of the military who currently serve. 

The causes? Low pay among lower-ranking enlistees, high unemployment among spouses, larger household sizes, challenges around activation and deployment, and unexpected financial emergencies. 

How do we know this? In addition to reports from our colleagues’ operating food pantries, MAZON learned from a source at the Pentagon that there are food pantries operating on or near every single naval and Marine base in the United States. There can be no denying that food insecurity among military families is a painful reality.  

There are three important actions that we urge Congress to take now to begin addressing this growing problem:

Demand more data. Despite strong anecdotal evidence, food insecurity among military families is not adequately documented or monitored by government agencies. What data we have been able to secure are often contradictory, out of date or simply incomprehensible.

No one really knows the military and veteran participation numbers for government nutrition programs, let alone estimates for the true level of need in these populations. Accurate data is essential if our nation is to better understand the scope of food insecurity among military families and allow us to find the gaps and provide meaningful solutions.

Make no mistake: If even one military family goes without adequate, nutritious food, this nation is not meeting its responsibility to those who serve our country.  

But data alone is not the answer.

Congress must act to remove policy barriers. Federal policies are actually denying struggling military families the resources they need to prevent food insecurity.

Including military members’ Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) as income when determining eligibility for SNAP is not only inconsistent with the treatment of BAH by other federal programs, it has made thousands of struggling families ineligible for vital SNAP benefits. In order to survive, they are turning to food pantries on and off military bases.

The BAH is excluded as income for the purposes of calculating income taxes and eligibility for Women, Infants and Children and Head Start programs. The BAH should be consistently excluded as income for the purposes of determining eligibility for all nutrition assistance programs. 

We urge agency collaboration. For veterans, this is not only essential; it is becoming a matter of life and death. A growing number of veterans — particularly disabled veterans — are caught in the middle of bureaucratic delays and federal agency silos, unaware of or unable to access nutrition assistance benefits despite their obvious need.

For veterans awaiting a disability determination, delays and multiple appeals are commonplace, with the process lasting almost a year in some communities. During this time, these men and women are unable to access nutrition assistance benefits and have literally nothing to eat.

What can we do? We can start by ensuring that the government agencies charged with caring for these people actually communicate with each other — VA social workers can use a simple food-insecurity screening tool and refer those who screen positive to resources that support access to adequate, healthy food, including SNAP. 

Perhaps the best way to prevent hunger among veterans is to protect and strengthen the SNAP program.  Right now, an estimated 60,000 veterans face the loss of SNAP benefits because of the expiration of the time limit waiver for people classified as able-bodied adults without dependents, known as ABAWDs. Cuts to SNAP hurt millions of Americans, including, military families and veterans.

This reality of limited data, unfair policy barriers and bureaucratic silos comes at a time when the need among military families and veterans has never been greater. 

The principle of leaving no one behind is deeply embedded in the ethos of the United States military. Unless Congress acts now, we are surely leaving these families behind and in the enemy hands of hunger and poverty.    

If not now, when? If not you, then who?

MAZON welcomes the opportunity to work with Congress to create lasting and meaningful change to meet the needs of our military and veterans’ families. Thank you.

Abby J. Leibman is president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. 

Why isn’t this night different?

Predictably, the 2015 House Republican budget released by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on April 1 proposes devastating and monumental cuts to programs designed to help those among us who need it most. It would slash Medicaid; it would change the funding, eligibility standards and structure of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program); it would repeal the Affordable Care Act. The same harsh proposals couched in the same tired rhetoric. 

And just as predictably, progressives are wringing their hands and describing the cuts as immoral. They invoke images of the seniors, children and disabled people who have done nothing to deserve their terrible lot but will feel these cuts most deeply. They cite independently verified statistics intended to dispel persistent myths about who actually needs these programs, because, the progressives proclaim, the political tides would change if they could just get everyone to actually understand the truth. The same hitherto ineffective counterpunches couched in the same tired rhetoric.

This is the time of year when we ask a very pointed question: “Why is this night different from all others?” The Passover seder is actually replete with questions — most of them ages old. But these questions, by their very nature, challenge us to stop and think, and to consider the range of possible answers to pinpoint why this night is different from all others — those during this year, or any other year. So I’m struggling to understand how this Republican budget and this progressive response are different from all others.

The facts about the astounding prevalence of hunger have remained essentially the same since the recession began in 2008: 

• 14.5 percent of American households were food insecure in 2012. That means 45 million Americans — nearly 1 out of every 6 of us — struggled to put adequate nutritious food on the table. 

• The rate of food insecurity in California — our great state where nearly half of the nation’s fresh produce is grown — is higher than the national average (15.6 percent).

• 1.7 million Angelenos are food insecure. That means the number of people struggling to feed themselves in our county is greater than the population of twelve individual states, and larger than that of the District of Columbia.

Despite the supposed recovery of our economy, the struggle of these vulnerable Americans continues to be the same. But the sameness of their struggle does not merit the same polarizing responses.

I have always embraced the rich Jewish tradition of asking questions, a custom that seems amplified during Passover. So especially now, when I consider the recent actions of our policymakers and lobbyists in Washington, I feel compelled to demand answers to questions that too often go unasked. 

Why, today, do the rhetoric and the overblown caricatures of “left” and “right” continue to remain so predictably the same? 

Why has it become more important for one or another side to be “right” than it is to do the right thing?

Why can we not be more courageous and willing to compromise?

What would it take for us to try a new and creative approach or framework that may yield a better result? 

How can we make today different from yesterday and all the days that came before it?

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Today, we must stop the insanity. We cannot travel the same path and expect to reach a different destination. 

It is not in our Jewish DNA to blindly accept the status quo. We are a people that takes action to create change when we encounter injustice. And there is no greater reversible injustice than the oppressive persistence of hunger in our county, our state and our nation. That so many struggle to survive means that our policymakers are failing us. Our job is to continue to ask questions. It is their job to provide different answers.

Abby J. Leibman is president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

SNAP cut: Who decides who’s hungry?

On Sept. 19, the House of Representatives passed a bill that slashes nearly $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). It’s difficult to capture just how monumental a shift this is in American policy. It certainly demonstrates extreme callousness to the enduring need felt by so many of our fellow Americans; it also makes evident its backers’ apparent disregard for the political will of their constituents; and it’s clear that it is grounded in the premise that loyalty to ideology should be held above all else. This mean-spirited and misguided bill undermines generations of bipartisan agreement to provide a federal nutrition safety net for vulnerable Americans.

For 40 years, SNAP has been included in the federal Farm Bill. SNAP’s inclusion represents a frank acknowledgment that too many Americans go hungry in spite of the huge bounty our farms produce. How many hungry Americans are there? Fifty million — that’s more than the entire population of Canada, and the highest percentage of Americans needing such assistance since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking in 1995.

The House failed to pass a comprehensive Farm Bill last June, primarily because of disagreement surrounding the nutrition title and that bill’s $20 billion cuts to SNAP. The response by House majority leaders in July was to turn their back on those in need and, for the first time ever, to strip SNAP entirely from the bill with a promise to address the nutrition title separately. 

Which brings us to last week’s disastrous vote approving a bill that slashes SNAP by 10 times as much as the bipartisan Farm Bill approved by the U.S. Senate. As both chambers prepare to go to conference to try to negotiate a mutually agreeable solution that can be sent for the president’s signature, they must understand what’s at stake. This is not a math problem to be resolved by making the numbers work, nor is it a political science exercise designed to test the political acumen of party extremists who attempt to manipulate the rules to get a desired result, regardless of the very real consequences.

What hangs in the balance are the lives of vulnerable Americans, including a significant number of our nation’s seniors, innocent victims of the proposed cuts who stand to lose SNAP benefits altogether or endure painful reductions. These are real people, not statistics, not caricatures. They are our neighbors, our friends, even our family members. 

Nearly 4 million seniors 60 years or older are enrolled in SNAP, which helps them to avoid having to choose between paying for food, medicine or rent. Yet the proposals that will be considered by the Conference Committee will eliminate provisions that streamline access to SNAP, cutting 1.8 million Americans with modest assets but limited fixed incomes — many of them seniors — from the program. SNAP means the difference between nutritious food and literally having to eat cat food, as we’ve learned from our New Face of Hunger initiative.

Our faith, like so many other faith traditions, teaches that the community has an obligation to sustain its most vulnerable. SNAP is the epitome of this fundamental idea, successfully realized on a larger scale. SNAP represents our collective commitment, as a national community, that when times are tough, we will stand together and help families get back on their feet.

Now is the time to support smart policies aimed at strengthening our nation’s recovery, not taking food out of the mouths of hungry people. We can rebuild our economy, but not if our fellow Americans cannot meet their most basic need for nutritious food.

Seventy years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his historic “Four Freedoms” address to Congress and asserted that Americans had a right to “freedom from want.” He understood that a lack of access to basic nutrition undermines a person’s ability to enjoy other fundamental rights.

It’s a scandal that our lawmakers have done so little since then to make good on that promise of “freedom from want.”

No country is better equipped to guarantee its citizens a right to food than the United States. What’s needed now is not the means but the political will to ensure that all Americans have enough to eat. Unfortunately, the uncertain fate of food stamps on Capitol Hill casts grave doubt on whether our leaders possess that will.

And so it comes to us to raise our voices to those appointed to the Farm Bill Conference Committee and to congressional leadership. Tell them that we expect better, that Congress is failing to live up to our collective responsibility to help the most vulnerable, that our country is missing the mark in protecting the right of our citizens to live free from want.

Abby J. Leibman is the president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national nonprofit organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel.

Senate passes farm bill, rejects full SNAP funding

The U.S. Senate passed the Farm Bill, whose final version some Jewish organizations had expressed dismay over because it did not include full funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps. 

The bill, which passed Thursday with bipartisan support in a 64-35 vote, gives price support and crop insurance programs to farmers and food assistance for low-income families.

Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, were pushing for full funding for SNAP in the final bill.

An amendment sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would have restored $4.5 billion to the SNAP program was defeated Tuesday by a nearly identical margin of 66-33.

Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religion Action Center, said in a press statement that the rejection of the amendment “is deeply disturbing and does not reflect our highest values as a nation. SNAP makes a crucial difference for millions of Americans, all of whom need the helping hand of government to help them lead the lives they seek to live.” 

“The Farm Bill simultaneously restricts food purchases by cutting $4.5 billion from SNAP,” he said in a statement. “This will result in, on average, approximately 500,000 households receiving an estimated $90 less in SNAP benefits each month. Having lived on the food stamp budget before as part of our Food Stamp Challenge, I know how scant the food on the current SNAP allotment can be.”

The legislation now moves to the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives where it is expected that conservative members will call for additional cuts in food stamp programs.