The Collapse of Food Aid

Almost 50 million people in the United States rely on food aid to help them meet their grocery bills each month, and in some case are entirely dependent on food assistance programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), food banks, religious charities, and other options varying by community. These numbers have been steadily growing (with some month-by-month fluctuations) since the economy crashed, and they don’t show strong signs of recovery—by which I mean falling (in the sense that fewer people need food assistance, not in the sense that more people are excluded from the rolls by technicalities and administrivia).

At the same time, the government is slashing food aid. In November of last year, the budget was slashed down to the point that beneficiaries would receive $1.40 per person per meal. This is an absurdly low number, and it’s one that people cannot realistically survive on, even if they follow all the preachings of high and mighty people who seem to think they know the secrets to surviving on government assistance even though they’ve never used it themselves and certainly haven’t actually tried to live for an extended period of time on this kind of food budget.

Recipients of food aid are, by necessity, extremely crafty with cooking and they’re highly skilled when it comes to making their food, and their assistance, stretch further. Residents of homes relying on food aid get very used to government cheese and all the myriad forms it can take, for example, returning meal after meal because nothing else is affordable or available. You learn to work deftly within ridiculous confines, and also?

You learn to go hungry. You learn to put as much food possible in the mouths of the young, very old, and ill members of the household, because they’re the ones who need the nutrition the most. You learn to scrounge. You learn to apply for every possible social programme that might help. And ultimately, sometimes, you still go hungry. No matter how many lentils you eat and no matter how many urban farms there are in your neighbourhood, hunger is still a powerful force in your life, and it’s a pressing issue in many communities within the United States.

This is a nation with a massive food surplus and truly skewed funding and budget priorities. SNAP is a relatively low-cost programme to operate, and yet, it dramatically improves quality of life across a wide swath of communities in the US. It doesn’t just address food insecurity, either: by making food affordable, the country also reduces the rate of illnesses associated with poor nutrition. It ensures that low-income children can focus in school because their stomaches aren’t growling with hunger. It frees low-income families to pursue activities like spending time with their children instead of working a second (or third, or fourth) shitty job for a few hours a day to try to bring in more money or access a benefit like a staff meal that could be brought home and shared.

Even before the cuts, SNAP was not adequate to the needs of most families in most area. The cost of food is widely variable across the United States, but the numbers the government claimed were sustainable were outrageously low, and based on some sort of bizarre algorithm that seemed to assume people didn’t actually eat, or had access to some sort of Narnia-like cupboard of foodstuffs that they could access at any point. After the cuts, SNAP was effectively gutted, leaving recipients facing hunger during the coldest and most bitter time of the year.

What did the government accomplish by cutting food assistance? It certainly didn’t save money in any meaningful way; there are certainly areas for cuts in the budget but this isn’t one of them. Ultimately, this cut didn’t go terribly far and the ripple effect created ultimately means it will cost more than it ever saved as, for instance, children on medical assistance enter treatment for malnutrition-related conditions and schools struggle to deal with students who can’t function in a classroom environment because they’re starving.

What the SNAP cuts did accomplish, however, was another blow to the lower and working classes of the United States, people who are already writhing on the ground crying uncle. This served as a reminder about who controls the flow of benefits and ultimately determines who lives and who dies. Like the cuts to disability services, cuts to food aid will prove fatal to some people in some communities, and this is a consequence the government is willing to accept.

Notably, many revolutions have started over lack of food. If the government thinks it can starve out the working classes to beat them into submission, it may be in for a rude awakening. The rumbles of rage growing across the United States in response to financial abuses, corporate malfeasance, endless war, and political shenanigans are not going to go away simply because people are hungry. Instead, they’re likely to get louder, more assertive, and more organised, because people from many walks of life can unite in the face of hunger to get things done and protect their communities.

Parents desperate to feed their children, adults furious at being abandoned to starve by a society that considers them valueless, politically-active teens seeing injustice in their communities, and others may find themselves electrified by the cuts to food aid. Instead of submitting to the government’s apparent desire to keep the working classes silent and unseen, their likely response to hunger and oppression may be to do just the opposite: will this be the benefits cut that starts a revolution?

I fervently hope so, because the fact that the United States has become a nation that attempts to starve its citizens into compliance deeply disturbs me.