The hunger problem in Blanco County may be about to get worse, and discussions are expected to begin next month about how to reduce the impact on the county's poor.
The immediate problem is that Congress is at an impasse over the Farm Bill, which includes federal food aid to low income families. Unless something changes in the next 60 days, the food for the poor runs out in October. Even if they do reach an agreement, it's expected to be cut dramatically.
The main feeding program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which replaced the old food stamps with state-issued debit cards which are re-loaded monthly with money that can be spent only on food. (The cards kick out non-food purchases, like alcohol and tobacco.)
In round numbers, there are 800 people in 300 families in the SNAP program in the county. Almost half of those beneficiaries are children; another one in eight is over 60. Most of those who stand to lose benefits are children and the elderly.
A non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study reported that nationally most SNAP families are working poor, with parents employed, often at multiple jobs, but still unable to make ends meet. Four out of five households had one wage-earner; more than a third had two working.
Many recipients cycle in and out of SNAP, accepting aid in hard times, then leaving the program when they get back on their feet. In the recent recession, many have faced hard times, resulting in more SNAP users.
As for the claim recipients live high on the program's benefits, the average benefit in Blanco County is $118 per person per month...hardly a generous grocery bill.
SNAP opponents say local charities, like food pantries, will take up the slack. But the Johnson City Christian Food Pantry has no slack; it exists on volunteer labor and individual donations to add to what it can get for about $600 a month from the Capital Area Food Bank in Austin. In good months, it's about a week's worth of food. In lean months, it's whatever it is.
Even before SNAP became a political football, some local residents were thinking of ways to expand the food available to the poor, especially the elderly and children. Now it's more urgent.
One idea is to open another food pantry, but that would require double the money and volunteers. Another would include training and education to help get families up out of poverty, so they'd no longer need the food aid, but that, too, would require more volunteers and money.
Can Blanco County support more help to feed the poor, and offset some of the cuts made by Congress? Will we do so? If we want to, what's the best way? How do we make it happen, and who will do it?
Some of your neighbors will begin wrestling with those questions by the end of the summer. Meanwhile, they're gathering information and looking for options.
If you'd like to be part of those discussions when they start next month, put your name on the list by calling Angie at the First United Methodist Church in Johnson City.