Food pantry lines are as long as ever. New SNAP work requirements would hurt those facing hunger.

We in the emergency food system are committed to meeting the elevated need in our communities. But we need policymakers to simplify SNAP, not create more barriers as they try to make a debt ceiling deal, three food activists write.

SHARE Food pantry lines are as long as ever. New SNAP work requirements would hurt those facing hunger.
A woman picks out groceries and goods at the El Mercadito food pantry in Humboldt Park on Jan. 31.

A woman picks out groceries and goods at the El Mercadito food pantry in Humboldt Park on Jan. 31.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

As Congress wrestles over the debt ceiling, some powerful voices are calling for cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, our nation’s most important anti-hunger program. We are worried. Hunger isn’t getting the same coverage as it did during the early days of the pandemic where video footage of cars lined up for miles outside of food banks shocked the country.

But at the pantries where we work, the need for food assistance is as high now as it was then. Food prices and inflation are at historic levels, wages have not kept up, and many families are finding it hard to make their household budgets stretch.

Motivated by the challenges our neighbors are facing, we recently traveled to Washington, D.C., with our partners from the Greater Chicago Food Depository and hundreds of anti-hunger advocates across the country, to protect SNAP from becoming a target in debt ceiling negotiations.

SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is our nation’s most effective line of defense against hunger. It assists two million Illinoisans each month, with 85% of SNAP benefits going to households with a child, older adult, or person with disability.

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Unfortunately, household SNAP benefits were rolled back this spring when the COVID-era boost in benefits ended. At a time of insufficient wages and elevated food prices, we need to bolster SNAP, not cut eligibility.

Yet despite the millions of Americans who are struggling to afford enough to eat, new work requirements that would affect nearly one million participants in SNAP and other critical public benefit programs have emerged as a sticking point in congressional negotiations over the debt ceiling.

SNAP already contains work requirements. Adults ages 18 through 49 and without children are required to work or participate in a work program for at least 20 hours a week to qualify for SNAP. Those who don’t meet the minimum work requirement are limited to a meager three months of benefits every three years. The proposal involves raising the maximum age to 55.

‘Our neighbors are struggling’

Further, most working-age SNAP participants who can work, do work. People often participate in SNAP when they’re between jobs and looking for work, but participants living in more than 80% of SNAP households worked in the year before or the year after receiving SNAP. Unfortunately, low-paying jobs with inconsistent hours and few benefits are all too common. We hear about it every day from the families we serve.

During our D.C. trip, we explained to our congressional representatives how the lines outside our food pantries are growing longer, not shorter, as the public health emergency declaration expired earlier this month. This is personal for us. It keeps us up at night. People we’ve known our whole lives — our neighbors, their children — are struggling. And we cannot stand by and watch.

With SNAP benefits being cut, many guests are now relying on pantries for food more frequently. We in the emergency food system are committed to meeting the elevated need in our communities. But charitable organizations cannot do it alone. Nor should we. We need the support of our policymakers to simplify SNAP, not create more barriers for our neighbors to access food.

This is why it was important for us to lift our voices and elevate the needs of our neighbors to policymakers. We have lived expertise. Advocating for change is essential to ending hunger.

Many dealing with the fallout from the ending of pandemic SNAP emergency payments have seen their benefits drop, to $29 a month in some cases. That works out to be around 96 cents a day. When a dozen eggs costs $5 these days, proposals to restrict SNAP access tell struggling families that they don’t matter. We lift our voices in advocacy because they do matter. And because, as we conveyed to legislators on Capitol Hill last week, we vehemently believe that food is a right, not a privilege.

The authors run food pantries in West Englewood and Austin. Rev. Gwen Sampson of All Things Through Christ Outreach Ministries and Food Pantry, Lovely Sardin of Inner-City Muslim Action Network’s Food & Wellness Center, and Nina Bernacet of Beyond Hunger are also graduates of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s Food Equity Ambassador Program.

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