Americans Are Falling Off the Food Cliff -- We Can Stop the Pain

This week, just days before Thanksgiving, lines at food banks will be growing. This is not unexpected. In fact, unbelievable as this may sound, this was scheduled. On November 1, 47 million Americans on SNAP (formerly food stamps) began receiving fewer benefits thanks to the expiration of funding from the 2009 stimulus. For a family of four, that reduction comes out to about $36 less for food for the month. Which brings us to this week; when those suddenly reduced grocery budgets begin to run out.

Congress saw this coming. We knew that even as food prices were increasing, working families, the unemployed, children, the disabled, and seniors would start to receive less assistance and problems with increased hunger in America would ensue. But not only were we allowed to go over the food cliff, Congress is actually debating even more cuts to SNAP. The Senate Farm Bill includes a $4.1 billion cut - almost equal to the $5 billion cut this month - and the House is making the Senate look like a humanitarian body by proposing a cut of $39 billion, eight times more devastating to the poor than the already problematic Senate proposal.

What made the fall from the food cliff even more painful is that we have been pushing our most vulnerable towards the edge for months. In March, the sequester went into effect, slashing nutrition assistance to low-income women and children, limiting the capacity of food banks, and cutting Meals on Wheels deliveries to homebound seniors. Not to mention cuts to Head Start and LIHEAP, the energy assistance program that had alleviated the need for families to choose between paying their heating bills and buying food. But that pain of the sequester was quickly forgotten because last month's government shutdown caused even more harm by diminishing these services even more. No doubt, 2013 has been a difficult year. And things are not looking better in 2014 as the next round of sequestration cuts goes into effect in January.

Bit by bit we are tearing holes in the fabric of our national human needs programs, and I fear the repercussions not only for those who need our assistance and protection, but for our nation. With one in seven Americans facing hunger, we went over the food cliff this month. Before that, the costs of disagreements that led to the government shutdown and sequestration were felt most by those with the least.

This week, as the food banks around the country work to meet the planned food cliff, we must acknowledge the choices we are making. Private charity is a noble but insufficient substitute. According to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, the estimated dollar value of all food distributed by U.S. charities this year is $5 billion, the same amount as the cut that took effect this month.

However, we are still able to change our course. Instead of demonizing and punishing those who need support in this season of plenty and thanksgiving, let us unmask the face of hunger in the United States and dedicate ourselves to overcoming it. The truth is, over half of those who benefit from SNAP are children and seniors. For unemployed adults, SNAP serves as support to help them through difficult times with more than half of enrollees leaving the program within a year, most of whom are only on the program for 10 months or less. Instead of taking away food from those in need, we should strengthen this program which feeds families, helps children do well in school, and supports the most vulnerable.

With each cut, our country pushes more Americans down the food cliff. How long until we stop noticing the fall? This Thanksgiving, as many of us sit at our tables for an annual feast, more of our fellow Americans will have less to eat. With this stark reality we must choose a different path. Now is the opportunity. As they actively negotiate a Farm Bill, Members of Congress, acting on our behalf, should open their hearts and offer an outstretched hand to those who have fallen over the food cliff. Simply, there should be no more cuts to SNAP.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is the President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. For more information and updates, visit here and follow @theJCPA on Twitter.