The enormous food drop in Palm Coast for thousands of families at the beginning of the month was inspiring. So was a local business like Verdego devoting four days’ worth of revenue, their entire revenue, to a donation to Grace Community Food Pantry. So, of course, is Grace Community’s work on behalf of food-insecure families week in and week out, long before the coronavirus emergency.
But for all the applause these events and organizations deserve, there is some needed caution. While commendable and necessary, those efforts, which will always fill a need in our communities, are not enough. Not when they’re irregularly scheduled. Not when they draw on limited supplies. Not this year, not when they’re drawing the miles of carlines they do wherever they’re held, whether in Palm Coast or in San Antonio, Texas.
And because of the very positive attention these food drops are deservedly getting, the events may detract from government’s responsibility to provide a more systematic and proportionate response to the catastrophic economic consequences of the coronavirus emergency on Americans’ food budgets.
That response should be focused on an expansion of food stamps programs, otherwise known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. (The program began during the Great Depression, when recipients got actual blue and reddish stamps to use at grocery stores.) The federal government was relatively quick to provide $600-a-week checks for the unemployed a few weeks ago. It should be taking an equally responsible approach with food stamps, seriously loosening eligibility criteria–starting with waiving work requirements and certain assets limits–and tying recipients’ access to their unemployment status.
There are several reasons why the food stamps approach is urgent and why it is the guaranteed way of ensuring against hunger. There are just as many reasons why misconceptions about food stamps and that relish of smug judgments about handouts make no sense when applied to food stamps and would be sheer malice now.
The nutrition program takes advantage of a system already in place to make EBT or electronic benefit transfer cards available to families quickly and fairly, with amounts calibrated to family size. In Florida last year, the average benefit going to a household was $219 a month, and closer to $350 in households with children. That’s the sort of difference that helps keep a family out of poverty, or at least dire poverty: no one on food stamps is living the posh lifestyle. (Let’s dispense with the cliche condemnations of people using their EBT card at the checkout line while “speaking on their cell phone.” J.D. Vance used the stone-hurling image in his self-congratulating 2016 “Hillbilly Elegy” memoir of poverty conquered only to be demeaned, the book that titillated conservative contempt for what he called “government largesse.” To think of a cell phone as luxury is as foolish as thinking of electricity or indoor plumbing as a luxury. This isn’t 1990.)
EBT cards give families the choice to get the food they want, with the variety they need. No food bank can rival that variety, key to decent nutrition. They also allow their use at the grocery store of the user’s choice, if within the excessive constraints imposed on what they may and may not buy, and where. Florida made strides in lifting prohibitions on online shopping, as much for convenience as for safety. Why should anyone be forced to shop at a grocery store if he or she feels safer shopping from home? Let’s not spit out the cell phone slur on Instacart. Other restrictions should be lifted.
If it’s private enterprise you favor, food stamps are an economic stimulus for private business. They’re money in grocers’ pockets. They keep those grocery store employees and workers along their supply chains employed, including farmers and rural communities down the line (who right now, in a grotesque irony, are trashing products they can’t sell.) Food stamps also avoid the unintended consequences of big food drops competing or undermining local grocery stores.
Finally, EBT cards provide families with a measure of privacy they lack when they have to drive through a line at a food drop, however loving the welcome. Some families are facing these difficulties for the first time and should not be blamed for being reluctant to seek aid in a rather public way. That’s assuming all families and individuals can even make it to a food drop, or hear about it. Many people don’t fall in those categories. EBT cards empower a family, an elderly couple or disabled individuals with the certainty of food security within geographically certain means, whatever the circumstances.
None of this is to diminish the role and generosity of food drops. But no city, no club, no single company, no collection of faith-based organizations are up to the challenge of feeding thousands of families shocked into depression in every community. The ideological claim that it isn’t the government’s responsibility, that this is the time for charities to step up, is a cop-out. It ignores the size of the hunger crisis, and it gives feckless legislators the chance to claim that the problem is taken care of–to exploit food drops for ideological gain. The misplaced feel-good, emotional appeal of food distributions, amplified by a complicity among media as well meaning as that of food drop organizers, can end up giving government a pass by scuttling a broader, more systematic response.
This is a national emergency. It is a national responsibility. As heartening and important as these food drops are, they’re a supplement, not a replacement for what government can and must do. This virus is causing enough harm to millions. Let’s not add hunger to the list.