'Like the Bite of Crabs'

"...Hunger feels like pincers, like the bite of crabs; it burns, burns, and has no fire. Hunger is a cold fire. Let us sit down soon to eat with all those who haven't eaten; let us spread great tablecloths, put salt in the lakes of the world, set up planetary bakeries, tables with strawberries in snow, and a plate like the moon itself from which we can all eat.

For now I ask no more than the justice of eating."

--Excerpt from "The Great Tablecloth," by Pablo Neruda

Many of us may not know what it is like to be hungry, to regularly miss meals, or to consume a diet void of essential nutrients to live a healthy life. Poet, diplomat and politician Pablo Neruda captures this feeling well in his poem "The Great Tablecloth." This Friday, millions of Americans may, sadly, be able to relate as well, because of a reduction in their food stamp benefits.

On Nov. 1, all households receiving food stamps will see their food budgets shrink as a temporary increase in food stamp benefits expires. A family of four could lose up to $36 a month in food stamps (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). Thirty-six dollars a month may not seem like much, but if you are a family of four with an income of $22,000 per year, $36 means several missed meals or increased difficulty in providing for one's children. And if this$11 billion reduction isn't devastating enough, members of the House and Senate have begun to finalize a farm bill that will impact vital anti-hunger programs. Additional reductions to the food stamp program, as proposed in the House and Senate versions of the bill, range from $4 billion to $39 billion. SNAP effectively and efficiently helps more than 47 million low-income Americans put food on the table. Even as unemployment and poverty have remained high, the number of families at risk of hunger has not increased since 2008. Contrary to popular belief, the average individual receiving food stamps is on the program for only nine months, until they manage to get back on their feet.

The farm bill debates don't stop at the American coastlines. Congress will also consider changes to life-saving international food aid programs. International food aid reached more than 66 million people affected by famine, disasters, and other emergencies last year. Still, our food aid programs can be more efficient while also better targeting the nutrition needs of women and children in the 1,000-day window from pregnancy to age 2. The Senate-passed farm bill begins to address these improvements through important changes that increase the flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency of the current food aid program structure so that it can better respond to the complex challenges of global hunger in the 21st century.

Forty-nine million Americans live at risk of hunger, and more than a billion people around the world live in extreme poverty. Any policies that create additional poverty among the working poor, or further impoverish hungry people around the world, are reprehensible. It is unacceptable for lawmakers to take vital food stamp benefits away from millions of Americans struggling to recover from the ongoing impacts of the recession. And it is reprehensible for our nation to turn away from people starving in Central America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia.

The solution to these problems isn't complicated. We live in a time when we can end hunger and poverty. We just need our lawmakers to put an end to political brinkmanship so the economy can function. As Congress begins these important discussions, we must hold them accountable. This debate is about more than simply balancing our federal budget -- it's about our values as a nation. It's time we support a farm bill that doesn't increase hunger in the United States and around the world by protecting food stamps and improving international food aid.