Cuts to SNAP Benefits Threaten Food Security in UCSF’s Backyard

Thursday, December 12, 2013

As UCSF students, staff and faculty make the final push toward winter vacations, many of us will be going to bed with gluttonous dreams of baked ham and Linzer cookies. But with the recent reductions in the federal food stamps program, with more cuts possibly to come, families in UCSF’s backyard will be struggling just to put food on the table.

According to the San Francisco Food Security Task Force, 13% of residents in District 5, which encompasses the Parnassus campus, are living below the federal poverty line, with incomes of no more than $23,550 for a family of four.

However, since the cost of living in San Francisco is so high, any household of four whose income is less than twice that amount is considered to be at risk of food insecurity, with uncertain or inconsistent access to enough nutritious food. This applies to a whopping 28.5 percent of the district.

Resources for food-insecure individuals include food pantries, free dining rooms and benefits from CalFresh, California’s food stamp program. In 2009, in the midst of a severe economic recession, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, colloquially known as the stimulus, which increased benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for all participating households.

With these expanded funding levels, the maximum benefit for a household of four based on the USDA’s calculations for a bare-bones diet was $668 a month, or about $5.60 per person, per day.

Although SNAP benefits are meant to supplement, not replace, food spending, the astronomically high cost of living in San Francisco leaves residents less money to purchase nutritious food. In addition, in the past three years, the consumer price index for all foods and beverages has risen 5.3 percent, making it even harder to stretch food dollars at the supermarket register.

Given that 28.5 percent of individuals in UCSF’s backyard are at risk of food insecurity, chances are that you will encounter someone in your day-to-day life who is food insecure — your next-door neighbor who is only eating two meals a day, the library custodian who is eating mostly starchy foods to tide him over for longer, your homeless patient who is not sure where she will find her next meal after discharge.

Due to Congressional inaction, $5 billion in benefits from the 2009 stimulus expired on November 1 of this year, the first time that SNAP benefits have been cut for all participants nationwide. For a family of four, this meant $36 less per month. Based on the USDA’s budget of $1.70 per meal, this means a loss of 21 meals.

More cuts are on the horizon. Congress is currently trying to pass an extension of the farm bill, which governs a huge swath of food and agricultural policy. A key point of contention is the extent of cuts to the food stamp program, with the Democrat-led Senate passing a bill reducing SNAP funding by $4.5 billion over 10 years and the Republican-led House voting on a bill reducing funding by $40 billion over the same period.  It is estimated that the House bill would remove 3.8 million people from SNAP.

Of course, food stamps are not the only tool, and may not even be the best tool, to address food insecurity.

True, there are able-bodied men and women on the food stamp rolls, although they only make up 10 percent of the federal program and are usually only eligible for three months of benefits. (Fox News and other conservative media outlets had a field day reporting on a San Diego surfer who used his food stamps to buy lobster and sushi.)

True, there are many structural problems making it difficult for families to prepare nutritious meals. In UCSF’s District 5, for example, more than 1,000 housing units lack complete kitchens, and cannot prepare anything requiring more than a hotplate or a microwave.

True, 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is uneaten, with the average American household throwing out 25 percent of the food and beverages it buys.  

However, with longer-term policy solutions nowhere to be seen and many households still hurting from the economic downturn, minimizing cuts to the federal food stamp program will help ensure that families continue to have access to nutritious food both here in the UCSF community as well as nationwide.

So as you enjoy this special food issue of the UCSF Synapse and prepare to gather around the holiday table with your family and friends, take a moment to consider the people in your day-to-day life here at UCSF who depend on SNAP benefits for their basic needs. Then pick up the phone and call your local representative to urge him or her to fight for maintaining funding for food stamps in the next farm bill.