How do you feed the 40 million people on food stamps without ruining the food bank system?

There’s a reason that food banks receive lots of money and publicity. They help people become less poor. Food stamps, Medicaid, earned income tax credits, food stamps – all can reduce the need for public assistance. They can even be an alternative to public assistance, especially for single parents and people with children. It’s no wonder that they’re so popular: food stamps have a life-expectancy advantage over cash income, and especially those for single parents and people with children.

But of course there are limits to what food banks can do. It’s not enough to provide food; people need to be able to afford it to actually use the food that they receive. And here’s where we find a real problem with food banks: they’re often unnecessary. They’re not a panacea for poverty or hunger.

For many, food banks are a crisis. In hot and humid climes, summer is a particularly dangerous time to be hungry because you can’t afford to heat your house. In the northern winter, when it’s cold and depressing and light isn’t always worth looking at, food banks help people who need to protect their energy. And who provides heat for a lot of people in Washington state? The Public Utility District of the Pacific Northwest – Washington’s version of HUSKY health insurance or New York’s Medicaid.

So when food banks are too plentiful – why does Washington state devote 50 percent of its $82 million food stamp budget to insuring vulnerable people? – it’s hard to understand how advocates could propose giving that money to food banks. Especially if you look closely, you’ll see that food banks sometimes even harm people who need them most.

For example, at a time when hunger is most pressing in long-term unemployment (which is by the way entirely predictable), food banks like FareShare – a nonprofit that gets its $6.3 million in USDA funding from food stamps – see hunger as the next best thing after housing. And here’s how they benefit from all that food stamp money: many food banks get cash or groceries from food stamp companies, particularly in times of peak needs. With all the nutrition in the neighborhood, it’s hard to imagine how food banks could be motivated to give that up in good times.

This is a really, really important consideration. To date, food banks have been able to hang together and protect themselves as they ring in the long-term unemployed because they help people during times of peak demand. But as the long-term unemployed disperse and demand for food rises, when they’re no longer being helped by food stamps, you might expect that money will go away. It certainly didn’t even with three Supreme Court rulings cutting SNAP funding in the last few years.

I’m not saying that everything about food banks should go away or that these organizations shouldn’t exist at all. They do help, and at least they do the hard work of managing public assistance so that people don’t end up in the streets because they couldn’t afford anything at all.

But if you’re on food stamps, and you can’t eat even on the $1.76 a meal, you’re not going to end up on food stamps. You might get another food stamp card, and a lot of single mothers would get one because they get paid benefits at their jobs and food stamps covers the cost of shopping and parenting and mortgages and childcare and everything else that their children take up when they leave home to attend school and stay home all day. People who could really benefit from these benefits could use SNAP as the replacement for food stamps, with the skills that SNAP already provides.

Besides, food stamps don’t offer any long-term solutions to a crisis. People can live on it for a few months. They can get better health outcomes and create institutions (YWCA, Boys and Girls Clubs) that provide services to their communities. But over a period of several years, cash-and-food-donated-food programs simply don’t offer much help in a crisis. But that’s the kind of crisis when people can’t afford anything, and before what food banks do.

Food stamp programs, already the target of pressure from their own reforms, will be heading even deeper into the flames if they start lobbying for new sources of funding. I don’t know how far they’ll go, but I bet that a lot of people on food stamps will start to pay attention to that in the coming years.

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