DEBERRY: Long lines at food pantry illustrate how hungry Louisianians are

Almost 17 percent of Louisianians report going hungry

A long line of cars turned into the parking lot of Goodwill Industries of Southeast Louisiana in New Orleans Wednesday morning, Aug. 5. The motorists were picking up free food from a community food pantry. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry / Louisiana Illuminator)

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act that Congress passed in March includes a provision that gives every family participating in the nation’s food stamps program the maximum amount of benefits for a household its size. But the long lines of motorists and pedestrians who appeared at a food pantry giveaway In New Orleans Wednesday helped illustrate a finding from a mid-July “Household Pulse Survey” from the U.S. Census Bureau that 16.5 percent of Louisianians haven’t had enough to eat

Ironically, Congress’ boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food stamps program is known) didn’t help the people who most need a boost.  Families that had been getting less than the maximum benefits for a household their size now get that maximum, which is good news for them.  However, an April 21 memo from the USDA to state agencies administering the SNAP program says SNAP households that already receive the maximum monthly allotment for their household size are not eligible for EA,’” meaning emergency allotments.

The pandemic makes it even harder than it already was for families to make ends meet, but, according to a report last week from the Center for American Progress, 7 million households (12 million people) have been excluded from the extra money Congress devoted to SNAP.  Those figures include  37 percent of Louisiana’s SNAP recipients. Those  299,886 people include 142,897 children.

Please don’t argue that it wouldn’t be right to give more to people who’d already been receiving the maximum amount allowed.  Please don’t make the claim that people receiving the maximum amount of SNAP benefits could eat sufficiently before the pandemic or that they can eat sufficiently now. 

They can’t. 

A 2018 Urban Institute report found that “The SNAP benefit does not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 99 percent of US continental counties and the District of Columbia.” According to the institute’s calculations, “Monthly SNAP benefits fall short of the cost of (the) average low-income meal by $46.50 per person.” For a family of four, that would be a shortfall of $186.

In a 2017 video project, the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University in New Orleans featured SNAP participants from across Louisiana talking about their participation and their frustrations with the program. One of their most common complaints was that the benefits provided were absurdly small and that they were made to jump through hoops to get that little bit.

Sakeenah Shabazz, who helped lead that video project for JSRI, said in a Tuesday phone interview, that the small benefits and the involved application process discourage some people who qualify for help from asking for it.  “If they have to take time off of work to do that only to get $15, they’re not going to do it,” Shabazz said.

Shabazz, who now works as a senior program associate at the Congressional Hunger Center in D.C., said during the six months she spent interviewing Louisianians, she talked to people who’d come through Louisiana’s last epic unemployment catastrophe.  “A lot of folks that I talked to that were in New Orleans pre- and post- Katrina (mentioned) the impact that SNAP had in helping them recover their footing as they were either reopening their businesses or trying to find work again,” Shabazz said. “Participating in SNAP was really helpful to those people — if only for a short period of time. Most people are not using SNAP for years on end.  Most people are using it as a stop-gap measure between bouts of unemployment or if they have another family member that was added to their home — especially for a lot of older adults that end up caring for their grandchildren.”

Volunteers filled baskets with free food for people who showed up to a community food pantry at Goodwill Industries of Southeast Louisiana in New Orleans Wednesday morning, Aug. 5. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry / Louisiana Illuminator)

Until she said it, I had never imagined businesses owners needing SNAP.  “There was one family that I had talked to who did have a restaurant, and he talked to me about having SNAP before he could get his restaurant back up and running. That particular person didn’t want to be on camera because he just didn’t want to be associated with that.  I think there’s a lot of shame and stigma around participating in SNAP.”  

Applicants who’ve suddenly fallen on hard times might fear being interrogated, Shabazz said: “What are you doing here? Why are you driving that particular car?  Why do you have that kind of coat?” 

Wednesday’s food giveaway was held at Goodwill Industries of Southeast Louisiana, and it was sponsored by Goodwill, the New Orleans City Council, Second Harvest Food Bank, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club and the Black Organization for Leadership Development.  For what it’s worth, there were nice-looking cars, SUVs and minivans pulling into the parking lot where free food was distributed. The sight of those nice-looking cars  was validation of a point  Shabazz made Tuesday, that hunger doesn’t have a look — especially not now.

It’s good that charities are stepping up to help, but it’s not as good as the “15 percent increase in maximum SNAP benefits for all households” that the Center for American Progress says would “capture the 12 million individuals excluded from previous legislation.”

Throughout Louisiana and the South in general,” Shabazz said, “it’s sort of thought that a charitable response to issues of hunger is sufficient.  You know, let the churches handle it, let the food banks handle it.  And they are part of the response to issues of hunger,  but the capacity of the USDA through SNAP is ten times more impactful than what a food bank can do.”

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