When the computerized system that debits Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cards — aka food stamps — went down for a few hours last month, it generated lots of national attention. Two Walmart stores in northern Louisiana continued to accept the cards without checking spending limits, which outraged Louisiana's U.S. Sen. David Vitter (among others). This month, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that the state would look into those who abused the SNAP cards with an eye toward penalizing them, if not kicking them out of the SNAP program entirely. No one approves of people taking unfair advantage of government programs, but these developments are vintage Vitter and Jindal — grandstanding by railing against political straw men.
Meanwhile, a much more important story about food stamps got considerably less attention locally.
More than 920,000 Louisianans — about one in five people in the entire state, or 388,000 families — saw their pantries become a little emptier this month. Back in 2009, the federal stimulus bill included a four-year-long boost in SNAP benefits. That extra provision expired Nov. 1, meaning that the 47 million Americans who depend on some federal assistance to stave off hunger are now faced with a 7 percent cut in benefits. Such cuts are always painful, more so during the holiday season.
The average family of four will lose $36 a month in SNAP funds at a time when more people than ever are using federally subsidized food benefits. According to figures compiled by the Food Research and Action Center, in the last five years Louisiana participation in the SNAP program has increased by 20 percent.
For those who battle hunger year-round, the timing could hardly be worse. Most people's benefits will be cut just before Thanksgiving, and the full cuts will be in place by Christmas and Hanukkah. The cuts also affect free and reduced lunch programs in the nation's public school systems. Worse yet, both versions of a farm bill currently pending in the House and Senate would result in more cost-cutting measures to the SNAP program next year and in years to come.
If you're tired of the commercialization of the holiday season, there's no better way to overcome that than to help someone who is hungry — whether it means donating money, tangible goods or just a few hours of your time.
"With Thanksgiving coming up, there will be an increase in need in our food pantries," says Terri Kaupp of Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, which works all year long to fight hunger in south Louisiana. "And we're probably hitting the point right now where people's benefits are running low. There's always a spike in need around the holidays, but this year we're particularly concerned about that one SNAP cut."
How can you help? There are several ways:
• Text the word "FEED" to 80088 on your smartphone to make a quick, easy donation of $10 to Second Harvest. According to Kaupp, $10 will provide 28 meals for the needy. You also can donate any amount you choose at Second Harvest's website, www.no-hunger.org.
• Put food in the Second Harvest red barrels kept year-round at Rouses Markets. Many Rouses already have "pre-shopped" bags of nutritious food that can be added at the register.
• Collect donations from friends, family, neighbors and co-workers and drop them off at Second Harvest's offices (700 Edwards Ave. in Elmwood). Or go to the food bank and volunteer for a few hours.
Speaking of volunteering: There is another major opportunity this week to give someone else a bit of Thanksgiving — or, if you're alone, to get out and share in some holiday cheer. The sheriff's annual Thanksgiving dinner is a 39-year-old tradition in New Orleans, and Sheriff Marlin Gusman will host this year's feast at Hall I in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center at 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day (Thursday, Nov. 28). Irma Thomas and other local musicians will perform, and all New Orleanians are welcome, regardless of need. (If you need a ride, call 504-827-8504.) Hundreds of volunteers are needed for this major event — shifts start at 9 a.m. — but the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office asks interested volunteers to register in advance at www.opcso.org.
Regardless of your feelings about food stamps, no one should have to be hungry, lonely or forgotten during the holidays. If you want to live the message and the true spirit of the holidays, just a few hours of your time or a few dollars out of your pocket can help those in our community who are less fortunate share in the joys of the season.