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Columbia Missourian

GEORGE KENNEDY: Blunt brings attention but not SNAP funding in Food Bank visit

By George Kennedy
December 19, 2013 | 4:34 p.m. CST

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt paid a short visit to the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri on Monday afternoon. As a member of the Food Bank board, I was there. The senator filled a couple of Buddy Pack bags for the customary photo op, asked a number of intelligent questions, endured a brief press conference, and made an excellent point when somebody asked him why he was visiting on a day the Senate was formally in session.

He said he thought the holiday season was a good time to call attention to the important work the Food Bank does. People are usually in a giving state of mind this time of year, he noted, and feeding the hungry is a deserving charity.

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All in all, I was more favorably impressed than I had expected to be.

It was the response to one of Sen. Blunt’s questions, though, that really caught my attention — and I hope will catch yours.

Scott Baker, who heads the Missouri Food Bank Association, was following up a comment by Peggy Kirkpatrick, director of our Food Bank, that we have given away 25 percent more food this year than last. (The numbers are staggering. Last year, 28 million pounds; this year, more than 35 million pounds.)

He noted that a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reveals that Missouri ranks second in the nation in the percentage of families suffering from what the feds term “very low food security.” Our neighbor to the south ranks No. 1. Maine and Ohio tie for third, but Tennessee and Mississippi give theSoutheastern Conference four of the top six in that roster of shame.

Another statistic he recited was even more ominous. Tracing the growth in very low food security over the 2002-12 decade, Missouri ranks first, tied with Maine.

Missouri has about 6 million residents. This USDA survey implies that nearly a half-million of us can’t be sure where the next meal is coming from.

In the bureaucratic language of the report, “very low food security” means that “at times during the year, the food intake of household members was reduced and their normal eating patterns were disrupted because the household lacked money and other resources for food.”

It’s no surprise that hunger and poverty are closely related.

Two-thirds of survey respondents who fell into the “very low” category reported being hungry but unable to afford food; 99 percent said they “worried that their food would run out before they got money to buy more”; 94 percent said they couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals.

The hunger problem is even worse in the area served by our Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri. Columbia aside, this region from the Lake of the Ozarks to the Iowa and Illinois lines is mainly rural and mainly poor. As Mr. Baker explained in an email to me after the senator’s visit, “Rural Missouri in general continues to pose a significant challenge because of accessibility, stigma and other factors.”

He added, “The problem is very real in Missouri, and awareness among the general population continues to be quite low.”

Maybe coverage of Sen. Blunt’s visit will help with that.

What won’t help, I’m afraid, is the mindset he revealed when I asked him his position on funding for the federal food stamp program, now called SNAP (for Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program). As you know, the program has doubled in size during the recent recession and aftermath. Now, a bill before the U.S. Senate proposes to cut funding by about $4 billion. The House of Representatives proposes a cut of 10 times that.

The USDA report shows that about half of those in food insecurity are getting food stamps, making it the most helpful of the federal nutrition programs

When I asked, Sen. Blunt responded with the standard conservative line about first needing to eliminate fraud and abuse. He cited a couple of anecdotes, but he didn’t mention the lack of evidence that there really is widespread fraud or abuse. I had hoped the sense of urgency he expressed for getting another farm bill passed would have extended to feeding the hungry.

Still, the recent flood of volunteers at the Food Bank does suggest that he was right about this being a generous season.

It’s a hungry season, too.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.