I know West Virginia kids depend on SNAP. I was one.
Editor’s note: The following op-ed, by Teresa Blake-Allen, appeared in the Sept. 20, 2018 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Blake-Allen is a school teacher at South Harrison Middle School in Lost Creek, West Virginia.
By Teresa Blake-Allen
Congress is debating the future of a program that is key to feeding almost one in five West Virginians — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Many people still refer to SNAP by its former name — food stamps.
SNAP is America’s food pantry — the most successful and effective federal nutrition program. It serves 42 million Americans, including 340,000 West Virginians, or 19 percent of the state’s population. The benefits aren’t huge — in fiscal year 2017, the average monthly benefit for each West Virginian receiving SNAP was $118, or about $1.29 per meal. But, for struggling West Virginia families, every bit helps.
I can speak from personal experience about the importance of SNAP. For several years growing up, my family received food stamps. My mother, who didn’t have a car and only went to school through the eighth grade, walked to class every day to earn her GED. Afterward, she walked to her job cleaning houses.
SNAP allowed me to go to school every day — I couldn’t go to school on a hungry belly. If you’re hungry, how can you focus? How can you do anything? But SNAP wasn’t just about me — it was about my mom. It allowed her to bring herself up. Today, she is a successful general manager at a grocery store.
And I consider myself successful, as well. I teach all subjects at South Harrison Middle School, in Lost Creek — math, science, reading, social studies — and I work with special education students. I also coach cheerleading at the high school level.
Most of our kids take advantage of the school lunch and breakfast programs. Many belong to families that receive SNAP benefits. With the economic challenges in our county, kids are dealing with very adult-like problems. They should be worrying about things like playing with their friends, sports, after-school activities. Instead, they hear their parents worrying over how the bills are going to be paid, and the kids wonder: Is there going to be food on the table when they get home? Will they even be able to eat?
So what is happening in Congress? And what does it have to do with my students? The House and Senate are attempting to reconcile two very different pieces of legislation — and two very different visions.
SNAP is included in the Farm Bill, officially known as the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018. The Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill on a bipartisan 86-11 vote, with both of West Virginia’s senators, Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, voting for the measure. This version keeps SNAP largely intact and even includes some improvements in the program.
The legislation fared differently in the House, where partisan politics abounded. The House passed its version of the Farm Bill on a 213-211 vote. Under the House legislation, the program would be cut by $23 billion, and an estimated 2 million people nationwide in 1 million households could lose benefits.
The bipartisan Senate bill was the result of negotiations between Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who serves as the most senior Democrat on that same committee.
For generations, leaders from both political parties have committed to the idea that struggling people should have enough to eat. But the House-passed version of the Farm Bill would take food out of the refrigerators and off the tables of millions of Americans and thousands of West Virginians.
SNAP is the first line of defense for West Virginia residents earning low wages, seniors, children, people with disabilities, veterans and people who are between jobs or do not have steady employment, often for reasons outside of their control. If the House version of the Farm Bill becomes law, we would see a ripple effect across the state that would include negative effects on everything from our communities’ health and education (because it’s hard to pay attention in class when you’re hungry) to reductions in economic growth and productivity for our farmers.
We live in the most prosperous nation in the world; no one should go hungry. Instead of punishing the poor and reducing access to food, Congress should focus on creating policies to end hunger and lift West Virginians out of poverty.
I am glad that Sens. Capito and Manchin have kept the best interests of West Virginia’s families and farmers, as well as my students, in mind when it comes to SNAP. I hope the rest of Congress will do the same.