It is heartwarming to see community members come through so the Huntington City Mission can reinstate lunch service. As someone who sees the generous nature of our people in action every day, I am not surprised one bit that the good folks of the greater Huntington area stepped up to address a food crisis that was manufactured almost entirely by the state of West Virginia.
And now I worry that the U.S. House of Representatives is about to manufacture another one, if we're not careful to stop it.
In May 2016, the Department of Health and Human Resources launched an experiment in the nine West Virginia counties with the lowest unemployment rates: jobless workers with no dependents (at least, no children in their legal custody) would lose their federal food assistance unless they had found steady 80 hours/month employment or were participating in a work training or community service program before the beginning of that month.
By July 2016, demand for meal service at the Huntington City Mission had increased sharply, rising by as much as 25 percent by August and remaining high moving forward. The increases in demand were not limited to Cabell County. A report by the WVU Food Justice Lab showed that throughout the nine counties where the time limits on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits were instituted, there were similar increases in visits to food pantries and local soup kitchens.
It is pretty clear what is going on here: When government embraces policies that put more red tape between people and SNAP benefits, local communities are left to fill the gap.
Given what the Cabell County community has gone through to bring three meals a day back to the City Mission, I would encourage the readership of The Herald-Dispatch to pay close attention to the House Farm Bill, currently under consideration in Congress. The Farm Bill is where the funding for SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) is reauthorized every five years. It is also the legislative vehicle that determines who is eligible for SNAP and what they have to do to qualify and keep benefits. Historically, the bill has been a bipartisan effort to ensure no American goes hungry.
When it comes to looking out for our neighbors and making sure that parents, kids, seniors and people with disabilities get enough to eat, the House Farm bill fails miserably. It doubles down on the failed approach in West Virginia that takes food away from people who do not meet designated work requirements or exemptions in a failed policy to spur workforce participation. The end result of this and other provisions in the bill will be increased food insecurity, with as many as 2 million folks kicked off nationwide and untold thousands throughout West Virginia whose only option will be to turn to our already over-stressed food banks and churches.
Fortunately, there are two silver linings to what's happening in Congress right now. The first is that the House Farm Bill failed on its first vote in May, although Congressman Evan Jenkins -along with Rep. Alex Mooney and Rep. David McKinley - voted for the bill and the bill is expected to come up for another vote later this month.
The second silver lining is that the U.S. Senate is showing us there is a better way: This month, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed a bipartisan version of the farm bill that protects SNAP and does not take away food assistance from any eligible households. The Senate bill even strengthens the program so that it works better for West Virginians and millions of others around the country.
I urge Senators Manchin and Capito to support the bipartisan Senate farm bill and to work with their colleagues to ensure that the bill continues to protect SNAP as it moves through the legislative process. I also call on Congressman Jenkins and the rest of our House delegation to follow the Senate's lead and reject the harmful House Farm Bill when it comes up for a vote again.
Our community members came through for Huntington City Mission this year when public policy failed the common good. I hope that our elected officials will come through for struggling West Virginians by supporting a farm bill that protects and strengthens SNAP.
Thank you so much!
Jennifer Anderson is a member of the Huntington/Barboursville community and director of Families Leading Change, a statewide advocacy coalition.