A new federal farm bill being finalized in Congress contains benefits for the nation’s agricultural industry including special provisions for New Jersey’s blueberry and cranberry farms. But, the House version would impose new restrictions on people relying on food stamps to feed their families. The work requirements and eligibility rules could mean some 35,000 New Jersey residents could lose SNAP benefits. The Community FoodBank of New Jersey President and CEO Carlos Rodriguez shared his concerns with Correspondent Joanna Gagis.
Gagis: Carlos, thanks so much for joining us. The Senate and House of Representatives just passed two very different versions of the farm bill. You were very critical of the House version. You recently wrote an Op-Ed. What is concerning to you about this version of the bill?
Rodriguez: Well the most concerning piece, it’s divorced from the reality of who’s participating in SNAP right now, especially in New Jersey.
Gagis: Who is participating in SNAP? Let’s first explain that to our audience.
Rodriguez: So, the SNAP program here in New Jersey is about 300,000 children that are participating. Another 30 percent of all adults that are participating are seniors. And a significant portion of who’s left, for the total 800,000 that are on SNAP in New Jersey, are actually working adults that are having a hard time making ends meet and whose jobs are sometimes very cyclical.
Gagis: So, take us back and explain what some of the cuts were. Because the House proposed some drastic cuts to what is the SNAP program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, that used to be called food stamps here in New Jersey. So, walk us through what those cuts look like. What was passed through the House?
Rodriguez: Well, the House is proposing a set of different cuts masked as work development.
Gagis: Make that come to life. What does that mean?
Rodriguez: That pretty much means they want to add barriers to families, thinking that they are not already working or willing to work. When in fact, there are already work requirements in the SNAP program. This will simply add unneeded burden and keep families, especially children, from participating in the program.
Gagis: So, just to play Devil’s Advocate, what is wrong with the government mandating that people who beyond government assistance programs, also have to work?
Rodriguez: There’s nothing wrong with workforce development programs. At our food bank, we invest heavily in that. But, this is divorced from people who is already participating in SNAP. In fact, we are finding many working families that are eligible and not participating in the program. That’s where efforts should be put.
Gagis: So you’re saying there are families who actually should be participating who are not, who are working, just can’t make the ends meet, can’t put the food on the table?
Rodriguez: Roughly about 65 percent of working families that could be participating in the program are participating, versus much higher national averages, and versus the entire population, which is close to 74 percent. So, you know, if you’re working, you have a hard time making ends meet, you’re juggling different schedules, perhaps child care, we need to look at ways to simplify the application process and continue to do the outreach to get those families on the program.
Gagis: Right now the Senate and the House have two very different versions of the bill. They need to meet. They need to reconcile these two into one version that passes. How concerned are you that New Jersey’s SNAP program could face some serious cuts through that negotiation process?
Rodriguez: Well, we’re very hopeful that the Senate bill will prevail in negotiations.
Gagis: The Senate did not propose the cuts.
Rodriguez: Did not propose the cuts. They take an approach that maintains the integrity of the program and strengthens its operation, and they want to look at what else they can do to really encourage workforce development in a way that really takes in account who’s in the program today. If the latter were to happen and the House bill were to move forward, you know, over the last few years we’ve increased our food distribution by 25 percent. That’s enough food for over 30 million meals, to enough food, this past June, of more than 45 million meals. This will erode that gain and much, much more.
Gagis: Translate that, what the community food bank is able to do versus what the SNAP program is able to do for hungry families in New Jersey.
Rodriguez: For every dollar we invest in bringing in those 45 million meals, the SNAP program provides 12 meals.
Gagis: So for every one, the SNAP program feeds 12.
Rodriguez: Exactly, so to take one away is to add to the need that’s already in our community.
Gagis: What do we know about the impact of hunger, especially for children, on their ability to succeed, to become functioning members of society?
Rodriguez: Here’s the most interesting thing. We’re really concerned about economic growth and economic development over the long term. You want to invest in the children. That’s the workforce of tomorrow. And if they’re not getting their proper nutrition today, during the developmental years, they’re not going to exceed in school the way they could. They’re not going to learn. They’re not going to develop. As a matter of fact, the exact opposite is true. You see, studies have proved, time and time again, children without the right nutrition do not grow, do not learn to the best of their ability.