The need to feed

The nearly $1 trillion farm bill now making its way to President Barack Obama’s desk is being lauded by many as a hopeful sign for the maligned and frequently deadlocked U.S. Congress. To some of those who fight local hunger, however, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2014 falls significantly short of amounting to good news.

The legislation includes $8 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps, over the next decade. While the sum is much less than the $40 billion reduction initially sought by House Republicans, representatives of the area’s busiest hunger relief agencies say the funding cuts will still badly hinder their mission.

Charles McLimans, executive director and CEO of the Loaves & Fishes Community Pantry in Naperville, called the final form of the bill “very disappointing” and said those who are most vulnerable to the effects of poverty will be hurt the most by the reduced funding.

“We will see an increase because of these cuts,” he said this week. “The pantries and the food banks are going to feel the brunt of it, because we make up for where the government leaves off.”

That happened in November, after stimulus funds provided by the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 expired. One client family who had been able to resume furnishing their own groceries, with help from food stamps, was compelled to return to the pantry to obtain sufficient quantities of food, McLimans said, because of the reduced support.

“I spoke to the family directly, so I know it is a reality for families across America,” he said.

The pantry isn’t the only area nonprofit feeling the squeeze.

“There’s no doubt that people are still hurting. Our partner feeding programs are seeing increased need across our entire 13-county service area and 800 feeding programs,” said Donna Lake, communications director at the Northern Illinois Food Bank, who emphasized that the farm bill’s impact spreads far beyond the farm. “It’s about community. We are dedicated to serving our community, and the farm bill is a five-year deal.”

The food bank’s distribution volume over the past six months has run 30 percent higher than it was over the same period the previous year, Lake said.

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, was among the House members who voted to pass the bill last week. He hailed the cooperation that led to the measure’s approval, but said the SNAP cuts were regrettable.

Food producers are not escaping the sting of the budget axe entirely. The bill will end the controversial policy of paying direct subsidies to farmers, regardless of their output. U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Winfield, whose district includes a part of Naperville, applauded the agricultural spending reductions in the bill in a statement he issued after the bill was approved in the lower chamber.

“Farmers, who are essential to our economy, rely on long-term assurance so they can plan ahead for uncertain times,” he said. “(It) is smart reform that actively cuts government spending and saves taxpayers money — such conservative reform of a long-standing program is overdue.”

Hultgren said he was proud to have been involved in crafting the law, in large part for the help it will bring to the people of his home state.

“This legislation will be good for Illinois — saving money, reforming entitlements and advancing conservative principles,” he said.

That’s not how the local anti-hunger advocates see it. McLimans noted that the bill also includes a $7 billion subsidy increase over the next decade for crop insurance.

“People look at is as a bipartisan victory, but I’ve looked at the bill … and the biggest beneficiaries are wealthy farmers,” he said.

He took the lawmakers to task for increasing the nonprofits’ workload.

“It’s very clear who wins and who loses in this bill,” McLimans said separately in an email. “The poor and most vulnerable members of our society lose since government is refusing to protect them.”

In response, anti-hunger efforts will be turning to sources of support closer to home.

“Naturally, Loaves & Fishes, through the power of compassion and philanthropy that exists in our community, will continue to increase our programming and efforts to ensure no one goes hungry in our community,” McLimans said.

The food bank also will be relying more heavily on its local network.

“Frankly, right now we’re not meeting the need,” said Lake, who reports that the agency already needs more food, funds, trucks and volunteers. “We’re going to have to work harder. We’re going to have to pull up our bootstraps, and engage the community.”