By Tom Wright
Political leaders from the national, state and local level stopped by New Jersey's largest food bank this afternoon to voice their opposition to a bill that would slash funding for federal programs that help feed the hungry.
U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-10th Dist.), who organized the event at the Hillside-based Community FoodBank of New Jersey, said he is "very concerned" about potential cuts as a result of the 2013 Farm Bill. He was joined by state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) and Hillside Councilwoman Angela Garretson.
The Farm Bill passed through agriculture committees in the House and Senate last month. It is responsible for funding most federal farm and food policies, and one of its key components is the program that replaced food stamps -- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
This month, the House is expected to bring the bill to the floor. The current version would cut SNAP by almost $21 billion and remove nearly 2 million people who are eligible from the program, Payne said. About 200,000 children would be automatically removed from the associated free school lunch program as a result.
"Twenty-one billion dollars coming out of this program is unconscionable. I am here to say that I will not support it, and I will continue to fight for programs that help families every single day survive in this nation," Payne said.
One in 10 New Jersey residents receive SNAP benefits, which amounts to more than 860,000 people in the state, Payne said -- more than double its enrollment five years ago. Of these SNAP recipients, 45 percent are children, 20 percent are elderly, and 10 percent are disabled, he said.
"This is not a program people stay on for years," Payne said, noting the average duration of assistance was 10 months.
FoodBank founder Kathleen DiChiara led the group of politicians through the sprawling 285,000-square-foot warehouse, up and down long rows of shelves stacked to the ceiling with pallets of food. They walked through a room packed with school supplies into a smaller warehouse filled with children's clothes, which the FoodBank distributes to families in need.
"It is just stupid that we would not be providing food to our future," DiChiara said, citing studies that show children will not fully develop mentally or physically if they grow up without proper nutrition.
The Community FoodBank works closely with SNAP, officials said. Last year the organization pre-screened 2,900 households for eligibility, then helped 1,500 apply. About 34 percent of the FoodBank's patrons also receive SNAP support, officials said.
Forty percent of SNAP recipients in New Jersey live in households with working income, according to Diane Riley, the FoodBank's director of advocacy. Fifty percent of those said there were times when they were forced to choose between paying rent or buying food, and the average monthly assistance is less than $200, she said.
"We're talking about American citizens. We're willing to go abroad and fight wars, but not to serve our own people in their time of need," Payne said.
"It's immoral in this nation that people would have to go hungry," he added. "It's absolutely immoral."