By Carla Meisterman
Special to The Commercial Appeal
Because of my work with organizations such as MIFA, the Mid-South Food Bank and Seedco, I am learning a lot about hunger in our city. The statistics are startling.
In Shelby County today, more than 263,000 people — or 28 percent (nearly 1 in 3 people) — receive SNAP Food Stamp assistance. This has risen dramatically since 2007 when 182,643 people in Shelby County — or 19.5 percent (fewer than 1 in 5 people) — received food stamps.
But food stamp statistics don’t begin to cover the facts of food insecurity. Food insecurity refers to the government’s measure of lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members, and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.
In 2010, the overall rate of child food insecurity in Tennessee was 25 percent; for children in Shelby County it was 20.3 percent. These are stunning figures we cannot afford to ignore.
President Lyndon Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964 into law, signaling the start of what we now know as food stamps. “I believe the Food Stamp Act weds the best of the humanitarian instincts of the American people with the best of the free enterprise system,” Johnson said at the time.
The program (known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) has been a fundamental bulwark for the poorest and hungriest people in our nation.
SNAP has been there for people when they needed help the most — in times of economic downturns and natural disasters. It’s a program that has helped millions weather challenging times.
SNAP helps the most vulnerable: The average SNAP household has an income of only 57 percent of the federal poverty level; and 84 percent of all benefits go to households with a child, senior, or disabled person.
SNAP lifts people out of poverty: SNAP lifted 3.9 million Americans above the poverty line in 2010, including 1.7 million children and 280,000 seniors.
SNAP has — for decades — enjoyed bipartisan support: Every bipartisan deficit group in 2010-11 insulated it from cuts, including the Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin commissions, the Gang of Six, and the August 2011 deficit agreement. In his most recent budgets, President Barack Obama has included proposals to strengthen the program.
Food stamps are one way to assist families in crisis. I have seen the benefits that food stamps provide to desperate individuals and families. But there is more to do.
Rev. Carla Meisterman is senior pastor of Balmoral Presbyterian Church.