Story by David Karas | Correspondent
The Catholic community must advocate against proposed changes in federal Farm Bill legislation, social service organizations say, to prevent significant cuts in benefits and eligibility for those most in need, both locally and nationwide.
The Farm Bill is a piece of legislation passed every five years, which sets policies that govern programs such as crop and farm support to total development, support for ranchers and consumers, and nutrition programs. According to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, the bill constitutes only 2 percent of federal funding on average, and nutrition programs account for nearly 80 percent of Farm Bill spending.
In recent weeks, the U.S. House and Senate each passed a different version of the Farm Bill, which would take effect after the current bill expires Sept. 30. As lawmakers in both chambers work to reconcile differences for a joint bill, advocates have raised concerns over aspects of the House version, which would significantly affect those most in need, particularly through proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is perhaps best known for providing food stamps or EBT benefits to needy families.
“The bill would reduce eligibility for SNAP for many current recipients as well as impose new stringent work requirements for SNAP benefits,” said Jennifer Sullivan, an attorney who serves as the social policy consultant for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton. “It would cause many low-income working families with children to lose benefits altogether or have them reduced.”
Sullivan said that the effects of the proposed House bill’s cuts could be substantial in number for the region.
“If these changes become law, it would reduce the number of New Jerseyans eligible for SNAP benefits, harming Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton consumers,” she said.
“As many as 35,000 Garden State residents could lose their benefits if the House version of the bill becomes law.”
She said that such a change could also result in an increased demand for food pantry programs offered by Catholic Charities and other social service agencies across the Diocese of Trenton.
In a July blog post, Marlene Lao-Collins, executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, expressed significant concern over the cuts in the House bill, which could end or reduce SNAP benefits for more than two million people across the country.
“Many household incomes are so low that they have to make the decision between feeding their families and paying rent or utilities,” she said. “Public policies should focus on protecting human life and dignity; ensuring individuals and families receive adequate nutrition is essential to preserving these values.”
Last year, Lao-Collins said Catholic Charities food pantries provided support to some 40,629 across the Diocese of Trenton – and the same number, or a higher one, is expected in 2018.
“Should these cuts become permanent, we anticipate more families will come to our food pantries,” she said. “In my interaction with other social services agencies, they are equally concerned. Although we make every effort to collaborate with other Catholic and non-Catholic social services, as well as parishes, in order to assist vulnerable individuals and families, it is always a challenge to meet the need.”
Mary Inkrot is executive director of the Mount Carmel Guild, a Trenton-based social service organization that operates a food pantry and nutrition program. In July alone, the nonprofit assisted 306 low-income families by providing a three-day supply of food. Nearly three quarters of those families already receive SNAP support, yet the amount is not enough to meet the needs of their family.
“With a cut in SNAP, we would anticipate seeing many families and individuals, including senior citizens, coming to our food pantry for the very first time,” Inkrot said.
“The Guild would then take on the challenge to procure all the additional food required to meet the increased food needs.”
Inkrot said that the House version of the bill would have “dire consequences” for families, including children who might lose eligibility for free or reduced lunches at school.
“Our faith clearly guides us to protect the vulnerable among us. We serve the poor, the children, the widows, all those in need,” she explained. “We are mandated to care for them, and this includes advocating for vital services that increase the health and well-being of those who need a helping hand.”
Support for those in need is a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching, and food security has long been a prominent issue among the faithful – seen in everything from the “Give us this day our daily bread” petition in the Our Father, to Pope Francis’ words and writing on the need to support the hungry.
“A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth,” Pope Francis told the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization in 2013. “Not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being.”
Lao-Collins added, “Throughout Scripture, Jesus Christ calls us to embrace the foreigner, the poor and vulnerable. He calls upon us to act with mercy, kindness and compassion, and not to turn our backs on them. … Our Christian values mandate us to defend and protect the poor.”
Catholic Charities U.S.A. has also issued an advocacy alert, calling on Catholics across the country to make their voices heard on the matter.
“The international food security programs in the Farm Bill provide lifesaving emergency assistance and an opportunity for our most vulnerable brothers and sisters to lead healthy, productive and dignified lives,” the advocacy alert states. “These essential programs are designed to get people emergency food when disasters strike, help communities in poverty grow more of the food they need, conserve natural resources and transform landscapes, and support literacy and education through school lunches.”
Both Lao-Collins and Sullivan encouraged those concerned about the proposed legislation to contact their federal representatives to oppose the House version of the Farm Bill.
“Calling your legislator to make your view known is important if we are to protect these limited resources that help so many people in our country fight hunger,” Lao-Collins said.