Anti-hunger advocates in Lawrence are anxious about potential reductions to low-income nutrition assistance after Congress recently passed versions of the farm bill that either reduced or didn't include funding for food stamps.
"We are the third-highest county in the state as it relates to rates of food insecurity," said Jeremy Farmer, CEO of local food pantry Just Food. "That's why a program such as food stamps is so important."
Farmer was citing a 2013 report by Feeding America that found that 16.9 percent of Douglas County children did not have consistent access to adequate food. Of those 3,920 kids, only 43 percent were eligible for federal nutrition assistance.
About 7 percent of Douglas County residents, or 8,477 people, are on food stamps, a number that has risen by 130 percent since 2000. The average recipient gets about $124 a month.
Farmer said Congress' intention to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is part of a larger trend that began in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration opted to reduce government funding for the hungry with the thought that private charities would pick up the slack. But since that time, he said, the number of hungry Americans has grown exponentially while nonprofits like the one he operates haven't had the resources to keep up.
Last week, the U.S. House passed a version of the farm bill that, for the first time in decades, did not including funding for food stamps. Three of the four Kansas members of House supported the agriculture-only farm bill, including Lawrence's representative, Lynn Jenkins. The Senate version, meanwhile, would cut SNAP by $4.1 billion over the next 10 years.
Jenkins, a Republican, said that splitting the bill won't affect the final law, and that the House would have passed the measures together if Democrats had agreed that food-aid recipients be required to look for work. She said federal nutrition assistance is in desperate need of reform.
"(House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank) Lucas is pursuing nutrition reforms to ensure illegal immigrants, lottery winners, traditional college students and the deceased don’t receive SNAP benefits," Jenkins said. "In Lawrence, for example, many (Kansas University) students who come from families of means may qualify for food stamps because they are unemployed. Under our bill, they may lose that qualification."
Kyle Roggenkamp, human services director for the local non-profit Ballard Center and Penn House, said that cuts to SNAP would be "devastating."
"A large number of our clients are receiving food benefits and that still isn't enough to supply their food needs, which is why we have pantries," he said.
His organization provides social services to 5,000 to 7,000 local residents a year, a number that is growing. While the majority are eligible for food stamps, many are unwilling to apply for them because of the stigma attached to them, an issue made worse by Congress' proposals to cut the program, he said.
"It seems like it's become a wedge issue, which brings a lot of shame to the people who use those services," Roggenkamp said, adding that many are seniors who have paid taxes all their lives. "It makes people feel bad asking for help."