Faith leaders: Food stamps critical in war on poverty

TALLAHASSEE – With faith community-supported food banks and homeless shelters already straining to meet demand, top religious leaders from some of the poorest states in the South warned Wednesday that churches cannot afford to pick up the tab if proposed cuts to federal food aid become law.

The notion voiced by some that charity is the responsibility of churches, not government, amounts to a “special tax on people of faith,” said Rev. Dr. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches. 

Food pantry in Flagler County
Food pantries like this one operated by an ecumenical group of churches in Flagler County would not be able to keep up with demand if proposed SNAP cuts go through, faith leaders say. File photo by Susan Green.

“It’s shifting a real cost in society onto a particular subset of society,” he said, noting that in the Tampa Bay area alone, more than a third of those seeking food assistance from church-supported programs claim no religious affiliation.

Meyer was among United Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist and Catholic leaders from across the Southeast to participate in a conference call media briefing facilitated by Florida Conference anti-poverty partner Florida Impact.

United Methodist bishops or their representatives from the Florida, Alabama-West Florida, North Carolina, Mississippi and Tennessee conferences were among those speaking out as a committee of Washington lawmakers readied to discuss the farm bill. Lawmakers’ challenge is to reconcile House and Senate versions of a bill that could slash as much as $40 billion over 10 years from the food assistance program once known as food stamps.

One by one and state by state, religious leaders blamed the dramatic increase in Americans relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) on lingering unemployment rates fueled by a sputtering economy. They said congregations have stepped up giving but can’t stuff enough backpacks or host enough summer and after-school programs to replace the government assistance that’s at risk.

Hit hardest by proposed food aid cuts, they predicted, would be children. But millions of retired and disabled people, workers with low-wage jobs and veterans would also lose benefits.

“If SNAP is cut… the estimate is that one out of three Florida families will face food insecurity at some point during the week,” Meyer said.

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the North Carolina Conference said legislators who proposed the dramatic cuts in federal aid are out of touch with the citizens that benefit from it.

“We do not allow people we know and love to go without food,” she said. “We cut SNAP because we don’t know the people in need, and because we don’t know … we pretend it is their fault.”

Since 2008, the Florida Conference has been part of the Partnership to End Childhood Hunger, whose main advocacy voice is Florida Impact. The partnership is about halfway into a 10-year plan to stamp out childhood hunger in the state.

Debra Susie, executive director, said the partnership has made tremendous progress toward its goal, including  working with state agencies to bolster summer feeding programs in schools and churches and improve access to them.  

Replacing federal food assistance to families in need if proposed cuts go through would cost every church about $15,000 a year, says Bread for the World.

Not only is federal assistance a vital part of the plan, she said, but many parents gain easy access to the additional help for their children by showing their SNAP eligibility as evidence of need. Losing that will make it harder to deliver services where they are most needed, Susie said.

“The SNAP program is the very first line of defense,” she said.

Rev. Clarke Campbell-Evans, Missional Engagement director for the Florida Conference and a Florida Impact board member, represented Florida Bishop Ken Carter on the conference call.

Campbell-Evans said in an interview afterward that he had firsthand knowledge of a church’s inability to fill all of the hunger needs of a community. At Saint Paul UMC, Tallahassee, where he was senior pastor until accepting his current appointment this summer, giving to the food pantry climbed about 50 percent in 2008, when the country slipped into a deep economic recession. Though laudable considering many church members were dealing with economic loss, the boost in generosity was not enough.

“The number of people that came to the [pantry] door from the community more than doubled,” Campbell-Evans said.

He referred to estimates from Bread for the World, which determined the cost to be borne by the 350,000 religious congregations in the U.S. if they tried to make up for recent and proposed reductions in food assistance. If all churches chipped in, including congregations of fewer than 100 members, the increase to each budget would be $15,000 a year.

Said Campbell-Evans: “We can’t come up with $15,000 a year to make up this difference.”

-- Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection.

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