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What the end of COVID Food Assistance benefits means for millions in America and in West Michigan

March 2, 2023

As of March 1st, the emergency allotment for individuals and households enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, will end in 32 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

That means recipient households will see their monthly grocery allocations reduced by at least $95, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In daily terms, that equates to trimming the roughly $9 per-person average to about $6.10. And the change comes when food prices in January increased 10% over the same month last year.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also reported that the pandemic-related SNAP increase kept millions out of poverty. 

The temporary benefits pushed back against hunger and hardship during COVID. A study estimated that EAs kept 4.2 million people above the poverty line in the last quarter of 2021, reducing poverty by 10 percent ― and child poverty by 14 percent ― in states with EAs at the time. The estimated reduction in poverty rates due to EAs was highest for Black and Latino people. 

This data shared by the center on Budget and Policy Priorities is sobering, but it also omits the fact that millions of Americans are food insecure and that number will only increase with the reduction in SNAP benefits as of March 1st. This means that more people will have to rely on food banks and pantries in order to be able to feed themselves and their families.

On Wednesday, WOODTV8 interviewed Ken Estelle, the president and CEO of Feeding America West Michigan to get his thoughts on the reduction in SNAP benefits. Estelle said: 

People have been relying on this for the past three years. Unfortunately, we think there are going to be some folks that are surprised by this. Even going back to what it was before, food costs more. So even what they used to get may not go as far as it used to. And over the last year, 2022, the inflation impact has really hit us. And so we’ve seen a continual month-on-month increase of the number of people coming for help, I think mainly driven by the inflation element. Recently, we’ve done an analysis and we’re actually able to take $1 and make 12 meals out of $1 now. So, we’ve really been looking at how can we stretch our dollars to feed as many people as possible? We know we’re actually helping more people today than we were a year ago.”

The President and CEO of Feeding American West Michigan acknowledges that the reduction in SNAP benefits is a bad thing. However, most of what he has to say, which is centered on the increase in people relying of food pantries and the increase in food costs due to inflation – both of which are true – are rooted in a food charity model.

Estelle invites people to be involved in supporting emergency food programs and food pantries, but he says nothing about the root causes of the national food insecurity problem. The President and CEO of Feeding American West Michigan doesn’t say anything about the national food insecurity problem because he advocates a Food Charity response instead of a Food Justice response. 

While I support people being able to access food pantries and other forms of food assistance, it is not a long term solution. In fact, Food Charity is a false solution, both because it doesn’t address root causes of the problem of food insecurity and because it can deceive people into thinking that volunteering at a food pantry or supporting the latest food drive is enough.

What food charity organizations need to start doing is address root causes of the problem of food insecurity and offering up more than “just donate your canned goods.” Here are a few suggestions for how groups that do Food Charity work can move in the direction of doing Food Justice work:

  • It would be important for any and all groups who do food triage work to acknowledge that just providing food assistance on a regular basis does not solve the problem. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t practice mutual aid and assist people in a time of crisis. We absolutely should practice mutual aid when we can. However, it is not enough to just provide charity, we must work towards transformative justice.
  • Once organizations can acknowledge that hunger is a much larger and systemic economic and racial problem, then they can, with other like-minded groups, begin to develop multi-pronged strategies to fight for economic and racial justice. 
  • Food Charity groups should end partnerships with corporations and families which are part of the local power structure, which supports candidates who pass policies that create more poverty.
  • Food Charity groups should participate in a Living Wage campaign at the city/county level. These groups should call for people to make a Living Wage. In Grand Rapids, the average cost of rent in this market is such that people would have to earn at least $20.02 per hour if they were working full time. Therefore, it seems that Food Charity groups should be advocating that people earn $25 an hour, which would not only allow people to afford the food they need to feed themselves and their families, it would force us to have a much more substantial conversation about economic policy and the larger wealth gap in this community.
  • Wealth re-distribution in the form of reparations. Those families, communities and corporations which have exploited workers and communities for decades, should be required to pay back the communities, families and individuals they have exploited. This is especially the case in the African American community, which has been exploited for centuries and where reparations should begin. Food Charity organizations should call for reparations. 
  • Food Charity organizations need to adopt clear racial justice policies that recognize historical racism and how it currently is manifested in West Michigan. For instance, how is it that the people who pick most of our food in West Michigan, migrant farmworkers, have a high rate of poverty? 

If Food Charity groups began to move towards a Food Justice model and then take these kinds of stances collectively, they would be a formidable force that could create the necessary changes needed to address longterm solutions to food insecurity. However, until these things happen, thousands of families in West Michigan, particularly in BIPOC communities, will continue to experience food insecurity. If Food Charity groups are unwilling to move in the Food Justice direction, then we have to pressure them into doing so, plus we need to create our own models for how to practice and promote Food Justice and Food Sovereignty. 

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