• Reilly Neill

Feeding the Future Requires a Community Effort

Just two days before Christmas this year, one in ten households lost their SNAP benefits as Federal requirements for food assistance dropped to under $16,000 per year in income or $2,100 in assets to qualify.

The most vulnerable in our population, children, will feel the effects of these cuts the most.

When my son was two years old, I was a single mom running a small business that employed a few full-time employees. After a rough financial year in 2008, running the business was a challenge and money was tight. I took pay cuts to survive and ended up applying for public assistance for food stamps because of all necessary expenses, food was the easiest to cut. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I was proud but I learned that even the hardest-working, dedicated business owner and parent needs the help of their community.

I applied for these benefits and six months later was fortunate enough to let the benefits expire. But a year later, even after working a second job all summer, I found myself back at the Office of Public Assistance applying again during the lean season of winter. The benefits were a lifesaver and helped us get back on our feet by summer. In my decades of adulthood, these two times are the only that I ever utilized our social security net.

In my work career and life, I’ve never needed to collect unemployment, worker’s compensation, accept state or federal funds for child care, or utilize many of the other social benefits of being a citizen of the United States. Here in America I feel like we care for one another in times of struggle and need. The times I collected food stamps made it possible for me to feed myself and my child and continue to run a business which benefitted many. My child and I are representative of others who utilize this system, a structure built for the purpose of providing a social safety net, not socialist rule or welfare. This benefit gave a person like me the ability to keep working and employing and insuring many others.

During the time I was on public assistance, I took advantage of a community garden plot and learned to farm my own vegetables. Soon, I was sourcing all of my produce and protein locally, saving money, and my son and I were enjoying a healthy, balanced life where economics did not dictate our well-being. Instead, we put sweat equity into growing our food and utilized local food systems, from buying eggs and milk from a local farmer to bartering and trade for goods from my newspaper business. I learned first-hand that ensuring food security ensures healthy children, healthy citizens and a healthy economy and in order to strive for this sustainability, we still sometimes need help from our community in the form of a Federal benefit.

I’m happy to pay back to this system because it worked fairly for me when I needed it and I want to know that this safety net will continue to exist for me and for anyone in true need. We have evolved in our democracy to know what makes a society good and just and what makes a democracy thrive. Taking care of one another is part of the healthy democracy equation.

We turn away now in our country from the notion of protecting and encouraging one another in the national discourse and, with deep cuts on regulations for toxic polluters, harsh penalties instead of compassion and acceptance for anyone attempting to cross our borders, and earlier this week, the tone-deaf and cruel cut of food stamps the week of Christmas.

From at least the times of the ancient Romans, societies have planned for food security in such institutions as public granaries, rations during war and now in the modern SNAP programs in America. We have Federal commodities available to the needy and the dedicated non-profit workers at food pantries, soup kitchens and resource centers across the state committed to feeding the less fortunate.

These efforts have resulted in good news for Montana. According to the Montana Food Bank Network, overall and child poverty rates have continued to drop and low-income assistance programs are helping Montanans rise above the poverty line.

The Montana Food Bank Network notes that poverty and food insecurity go hand-in-hand, making it crucial that we continue to invest in programs that “lift people out of poverty and support policies to strengthen our economy.”

We have opportunities in Montana to be a self-sustaining island of food production in the future with enough to share, spare and export. But there are stirring examples in history where climate variability has devastated civilizations by undermining food security. Ancient droughts in Egypt and the American southwest led to the demise of entire cultures.

Looking to the 2020s, we have the tools to assess potential for disaster and mitigate it. Cutting food benefits for those making less than about $1,300 a month seems a step in a completely wrong direction. We need to invest in food security to build a solid foundation in our economy and in our communities in Montana. The world we now face, as temperatures continue to rise and climate variability increases, is a world of uncertainty. Having a solid foundation of progress in decreasing poverty will be essential as we go forward.

Many people had a hungry Christmas season this year and will face food insecurity going forward in the future. I urge individuals to donate to their local food pantry in their year-end giving or donate time to these facilities because the effects of these cuts will be felt well into the lean season of winter.

No one should be denied the right to healthy food in our state, especially the elderly, poor and young. We need to be building food security as we stand to face a host of other agricultural challenges that may prove overwhelming for our state in the future. Shoring up our social safety nets should be a priority.

Rather than reverse the gains we as a state have made against poverty, we need to double down on the community effort to feed the hungry. My husband and I made a donation to our local Livingston Food Resource Center where I have volunteered many hours in the kitchen. I urge my fellow Montanans to make the same effort if they can. Everyone in our state deserves to live a healthy life where food is not a luxury.

Click on the above table for more information about the 2017 Census Poverty Data Release from the Montana Food Bank Network.

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