The 35-day government shutdown represents a failure in the U.S. political system to provide basic services to the American people. Sprout co-editor, Nako Kobayashi, discusses how the shutdown presents an opportunity to reflect on three key failings of our current food system.
SNAP uncertainty during the shutdown
During the government shutdown, over 40 million Americans who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) worried that they might not get the monthly benefits they rely on to purchase food. Although most SNAP recipients did end up receiving payments, the shutdown disrupted the regular benefit payment cycle of SNAP. SNAP participants normally receive their monthly benefits on a 28 to 31-day cycle. Anticipating a prolonged government shutdown, many states paid participants their February benefits around ten days earlier than usual, on January 20th. While early delivery of benefits helps prevent SNAP participants from going hungry in the short-term, many people will experience a longer gap between their February and March benefits than they are used to.
The average SNAP benefit works out to just $1.40 per meal per person, which is delivered as a bulk payment of $253 per household at the beginning of the month. Managing this tight budget and appropriately allocating other funds a household has for food purchase can be difficult, even when the government functions as it should. Food insecure households should not have to bear the added burden of worrying about whether or not their SNAP benefits will be delivered to them due to an unstable government. In the event of another shutdown, SNAP should be considered an essential function of the government and the regular cycle of payments should not be broken.
The need to improve food security
The government shutdown also revealed how many federal workers are just one paycheck away from being food insecure. Thousands of government employees receiving IOUs instead of their regular paychecks formed long lines at food banks and pantries throughout the nation. Many of these establishments quickly ran out of food, leaving some federal employees to rely on the generosity of community members and businesses that helped provide them with free food.
Food pantries, a part of The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), are meant to provide short-term hunger relief for emergency situations: in this case, a government shutdown. With the government back up and running, most of these federal employees may not have to resort to the food pantry – for now. However, for many Americans, relying on emergency sources for food is not an occasional or temporary occurrence. While SNAP helps relieve chronic food insecurity for many, it is clear that this is not a sufficient institution for addressing acute forms of food insecurity in this country. The media attention on food pantries during the shutdown reinforced the need to improve our nutrition assistance programs.
At the heart of the matter lies the fact that SNAP does not do enough to truly help households be food secure. Over 40 million Americans, around 12% of the total population, participate in SNAP. A third of all households receiving SNAP benefits have at least one working adult, with other recipients being disabled adults, elderly, or children. To be SNAP-eligible, a household’s gross income must be under 130% of the federal poverty line, which for a family of three is under around $2,252 per month, or $27,000 per year. SNAP recipients are not “freeloaders”. They are people, either working or unable to work, who our current system has left unable to adequately feed themselves.
To reiterate, our current system assumes that a family of three with a collective $2,252 in net income can survive off of just a supplemental $1.40 per meal per person per day. House Republicans wanted to further cut SNAP funding during recent Farm Bill debates. They even considered placing stricter work requirements that would make life more difficult for those living in states with high unemployment rates. Changes must be made to SNAP to ensure that the program is actually helping feed those in need, and cutting the budget is surely the opposite of what the program needs. In addition, the government shutdown revealed how close many families are to being food insecure in any given month. Affording livable wages to employees to ensure that they can save money for times of emergency should be a requirement for any employer, especially the federal government.
How safe is our food supply?
During the government shutdown, the FDA reported that they would continue to conduct inspections of high-risk facilities, but halt all other routine inspections. This led to a media frenzy, with many Americans wondering what they should or should not risk buying during this temporary lapse of inspections. Because of recent E. Coli outbreaks, many Americans were concerned that the government shutdown would lead to insufficient inspections of food that could cause them real harm.
However, many were quick to note that the usual level of inspections is not adequate, either. Not every food processing establishment gets checked on a daily basis. In fact, most don’t. In general, the way the FDA deals with food safety incidents is by responding to outbreaks after the fact, rather than preventing them. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) mandates that facilities deemed “high-risk” are inspected at least once in an initial 5-year and subsequent 3-year inspection cycle. For non-high-risk facilities, the act mandates an inspection once every initial 7-year cycle and subsequent 5-year cycle. In reality, the FDA inspects even fewer facilities. The FDA oversees 80% of the U.S. food supply, but they are simply too understaffed and underfunded to inspect the 80,000+ facilities they are supposed to oversee on a more frequent basis. In 2015, the FDA inspected just 16,000 domestic food facilities. The FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb estimated in an interview during the shutdown that his agency typically performs around 160 inspections a month.
Reports about the lack of inspections during the shutdown likely caused panic because many people assume that the FDA usually conducts inspections of most food facilities in any given month. Perhaps the government should take this concern into mind and work to establish a more consistent and thorough way to monitor food safety risks. More funds should be allocated to the food safety inspection arms of the FDA, USDA, and FSIS. This would help properly staff these entities so that our food supply is safe, and that any outbreaks are prevented before they occur.
What did we learn?
President Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border caused this recent government shutdown. However, the shutdown made it clearer than ever just how underfunded and broken some of our food-related institutions are. $5.7 billion could go a very long way to help improve the condition of the current U.S. food system. For one thing, we could create more American jobs by employing more food inspectors to make sure food facilities are adequately monitored. Since the average SNAP benefit comes out to $1.40 per person per meal, $5.7 billion could also pay for over 4 billion more meals. This could be used to feed more people, or to simply increase the average SNAP benefit so that the program can more adequately address food insecurity and hunger in the U.S. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the shutdown resulted in an unrecoverable $3 billion reduction in GDP compared to what it would have been without a shutdown. Instead of wasting money fighting over partisan demands, U.S. policymakers need to get their priorities straight and make sure that the federal budget is being used in ways that will help the most Americans and fix our broken systems.
Nako Kobayashi is a co-editor of the Sprout and an AFE student interested in sustainable and diversified food systems. Studying at Friedman has made her more aware of and interested in nutrition, especially with regards to policy and linking agricultural production to public health outcomes.