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Federal Food Assistance Programs Alone Fall Short For Americans

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All this hour, we're talking about the problem of food insecurity in this country. We're going to focus now on the programs that are meant to address this basic need. What does the government provide? And where has it fallen short? Joining us now to tell us more is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent Dan Charles. Dan, welcome.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Good to be here.

MARTIN: So, first of all, would you just tell us about the systems that are currently in place to help people get access to the food they need - especially now in the middle of this pandemic?

CHARLES: The backbone of that system is called SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This program has its limits, which I'll get to, but it is really important and probably does not get enough credit.

MARTIN: And that's what used to be called food stamps?

CHARLES: That's right. There are a couple of things about SNAP that just make it great. First of all, it's really quick in responding to a crisis like this. You sign up. Benefits get loaded electronically on a card. Instantly, you can go to a grocery store and buy food. I find that kind of amazing. The other thing is it is really efficient. It takes advantage of the normal commercial supply chain for food. You know, like, grocery stores, they're already there. The government doesn't have to come up with a new way of delivering food. And it can handle huge numbers of people. More than 1 out of 8 Americans is in this program right now.

MARTIN: Well, what about the paperwork involved, though? You have to prove you qualify. Is that a barrier to participation?

CHARLES: Well, it is a barrier. I mean, you have to provide documentation of income, residency. And you can imagine - I mean, that can be a problem if, let's say, you've just been evicted. You've lost your address. That can make things really hard. Or, also, part of the rules of the program are if you're an undocumented immigrant, you do not qualify. Your American-born children who are citizens, they do qualify. But there's evidence that a lot of families who are in that situation don't even try to get into the program.

MARTIN: And I can imagine there's a lot of sort of philosophical and political opinion behind that qualification or that standard. But what about the benefit level? I mean, is it enough to meet the need? If you lost your job and you're trying to provide healthy food to your children - sufficient, healthy food to your children - can you do it with SNAP?

CHARLES: It is hard. The benefit level was set up to meet some minimum requirement and, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is sufficient. But we're talking just a few dollars a day per person, right. A hundred and fifty dollars to $200 a month - that's the maximum SNAP benefit. That would be really hard.

MARTIN: Could the government increase those benefits?

CHARLES: Yes, it could. And there is a big political fight going on right now about that. Now, I should say the Trump administration did bump everybody in the program up to that maximum level. But the Democrats want to go further and increase the maximum level by 15%. That's what the Obama administration did during the Great Recession 10 years ago. The Democrats passed a provision like that in the House, but the Senate has not gone along.

MARTIN: Dan, I think a lot of people might remember pictures and stories that we heard from earlier in this year and, especially in the growing season, when we saw pictures of like milk being poured down the drain or vegetables and fruits being left to rot in the fields because farmers couldn't get those items to their customers because everything was shut down. Why is that happening? Like, why couldn't these farmers get these products to the people who needed food?

CHARLES: Food supply chains are amazing, and they're really efficient. But they're sometimes inflexible. For instance, a vast majority of the tomatoes in Florida are grown for what they call food service. You know, that's cruise ships and restaurants and stores. That's how they packaged the tomatoes. That's the kind of tomatoes they grow. And, suddenly, with the lockdown, those places went out of business. They couldn't just, like, send them to the grocery store. They didn't have that relationship, and they weren't growing the type of product that was easy to send to a grocery store. It was, like, a total collapse of the system. But it was pretty brief. And you're not seeing - basically, farmers are not destroying crops and dairy farmers are not dumping milk anymore. People have adjusted.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. There was this Farmers to Families program. The point was to buy food that farmers were having trouble selling and distribute it through food banks. Is this up and running? And has this been effective?

CHARLES: It is up and running. They funded it with $4 billion. They've delivered tens of millions of these food boxes to food banks for distribution. But the program has had a lot of problems, to be honest. Contractors were supposed to deliver food, these boxes, all the way to, you know, the trunks of cars. Many of them didn't do it. So food banks had to spend a lot of money taking over that job. Food didn't necessarily go to the places where it was most needed. And, honestly, it was just not very efficient. Setting up a new supply chain was really expensive and takes a lot of work. And, you know, compared to the amount of money they spent on that program, the same amount of money distributed through SNAP would have delivered a lot more food.

MARTIN: So I see your point, Dan, about sort of the efficiencies here. But is money for SNAP - more money for SNAP all that's needed? I mean, from what we're hearing, there are all kinds of, you know, distribution glitches here, all kinds of kind of mismatches between the need - where the food is being produced, how the food gets the people who need it - and it just seems like there are a lot of food and nutrition problems that this one program isn't solving. Is that right?

CHARLES: I mean, you're absolutely right. I mean, when you step back and think about it - let's take the example of SNAP. You got your SNAP benefits card. You got your benefits. You go try to find food at the grocery store. There are a lot of places in the country where, for reasons of poverty and all kinds of reasons, there - it is pretty hard to find stores that are selling a lot of good, fresh produce. There are neighborhoods where their corner stores are not great. There are rural areas and small towns where all you have is something like a Dollar General. And so that's the food environment, and that's a much bigger problem. That was the situation before the pandemic. And I'm afraid it's still going to be the case when the pandemic passes.

MARTIN: That is Dan Charles, NPR's food and agriculture correspondent. Dan, thank you so much.

CHARLES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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