‘We’ve got to keep [food stamps] whole’: Wolf administration begins Hunger Action Month

First Lady Frances Wolf speaks about Hunger Action Month in the Capitol rotunda. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

More than 1.5 million Pennsylvanians experience hunger.

Roughly two out of seven of those people are children, according to Feeding America, a national network of food banks. This population is “food insecure,” meaning they don’t always have enough to eat “to live an active, healthy life.”

Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, said more than 50 percent of his organization’s clients are working families. That wasn’t the case two decades ago, when he first joined the food bank’s board.

“You would think with a strong economy, we would see more of a decrease in demand,” he said. “But whereas the unemployment rate has [fallen], demand has only gone down a little.”

Arthur joined First Lady Frances Wolf and several members of Gov. Tom Wolf’s cabinet in the Capitol rotunda Tuesday to kick off Feeding America’s Hunger Action Month. Collectively, they highlighted the work of the Food Security Partnership, a coalition of state agencies the governor established in 2015 to collaborate with the private sector.

In 2016, the group released a blueprint to eradicate hunger, with goals including reaching more families eligible for food stamps, expanding access to tax credits for food donations, and implementing the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System.

Arthur highlighted the latter program, which allows farmers to donate surplus produce, meat, and dairy to charitable food organizations like the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank in exchange for a reimbursement. Over the past three years, farmers have donated 40 tanker trucks’ worth of milk that has been turned into cheese for food bank clients.

But while food banks are a crucial part of Pennsylvania’s anti-hunger efforts, state Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, provide about nine meals for every one served by a private organization.

“SNAP is the most important anti-hunger program we have,” Miller said. “SNAP is the primary way we help feed a lot of families.”

Miller decried proposed regulatory changes to how SNAP operates advanced by the Trump administration. They include curtailing broad-based categorical eligibility, which makes certain families automatically eligible for food stamps if they use a non-cash service — such as childcare — funded by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

According to Miller’s department, nearly 205,000 adults and children stand to lose SNAP under that rule change. One of the groups that would be hardest hit are working families who have seen their incomes rise but still need extra help, according to the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The proposed rule change would also end automatic free and reduced-price school lunch eligibility for between 265,000 and half a million children nationwide.

Food stamp allowances are determined by income and household size, with some larger low-income families eligible for a few hundred dollars a month.

“There really are not enough charitable resources to make up the difference,” Arthur said, adding that broad-based categorical eligibility helps “families that might be right on the edge.”

Throughout September, Wolf’s administration will make stops at food banks and pantries across the state. Officials will also visit two SNAP 50/50 sites to see how nonprofits are leveraging federal funds to provide job training for food stamp recipients.

Arthur said helping people apply for SNAP has become a larger part of what his food bank does. “I think that’s more of a broader trend,” he added.

“[We’re] helping people, first of all, convincing them that you should, if you’re eligible, take advantage,” he said. “We have a lot of elderly in particular who just will not apply unless you really work with them and talk with them, and then actually help them through the application. We also can help them apply online. … That makes a big difference, for some people. It gets over the fear factor.”

Miller said the federal government shutdown in January — when SNAP benefits were delayed — demonstrated just how much strain would put on food banks if the program was curtailed.

While the administration is continuing to work on the blueprint’s goals, Miller said the Human Services department is focused on “fighting the federal administration on all the efforts to cut SNAP and reduce the number of families served.”

“We’ve got to keep SNAP whole,” she said.

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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