Legislator Stories: Addressing Hunger in the States

7/25/2018

Introduction

In one of the wealthiest nations in the world, hunger remains a serious problem. In 2016, 41.2 million Americans lived in food-insecure households. Food insecurity, defined as being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food, affects every community in the United States.

Federal nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are proven effective in alleviating food insecurity and lifting millions out of poverty. In 2016, SNAP reduced the number of Americans in poverty by 3.6 million. SNAP provides vital support to low-income families and significant economic stimulus to local economies. For every $5 of SNAP benefits, $9 is generated in local economic activity. The majority of SNAP recipients are children, working parents, seniors and people with disabilities.

NCSL’s bipartisan Hunger Partnership brings together state legislators, corporate, and nonprofit partners to address hunger in the states. Below are excerpts from short interviews with Hunger Partnership state legislators about innovative hunger solutions and lessons learned in their states. Follow the links to listen to the full interviews.

Representative Charlotte Douglas (R), Arkansas

As chair of the Arkansas House of Representatives’ Hunger Caucus, Douglas speaks to the benefits of building a statewide hunger alliance and building meaningful partnerships across sectors, such as with the agricultural and business communities.

“We have found that if we have business partnerships, then it gives the program sustainability,” she said. “Partnering with the Cattlemen’s Association, the Corrections Department, Baptist Health, General Foods, Tysons and Walmart—all of these give us great sustainability because there’s the financial help and then, a lot of times, they have volunteers that come from these organizations.

“I think one of our strong suits is our Hunger Alliance in our state. I would advise you to get a—what I’m going to call a ‘go-getter’—and put them at the head of a statewide hunger alliance that is in charge of coordinating all these programs statewide. And this needs to be funded, so have them do the fundraising for the programs. This has been a huge piece to the success in our state.”

Listen to the full interview with Douglas.

Senator Holly Mitchell (D), California

As chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, Mitchell shares the innovative approaches the committee took to addressing hunger through the state’s FY 2018 budget. Among the issues tackled through state funding: Hunger on college campuses, access to fruits and vegetables in food deserts, and access to food during California’s wildfires.

“I think, globally, I would say that recognizing the importance of increasing resources and purchasing power to our low-income residents is the fundamental best way we can help address hunger,” she said.

“Oftentimes, at least here in California, we leave money and opportunity on the table because we’re not willing to create matching funds, as a matching opportunity to partner. I think looking at those opportunities is really important. As states, we cannot and should not be expected to do it alone. But we can be the bridge between existing infrastructure, other governmental entities, other nonprofits, other service providers—and be that necessary link in order to expand access to critical services that will help address hunger across your state.”

Listen to the full interview with Mitchell.

Senator Renee Unterman (R), Georgia

Unterman, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and co-chair of the NCSL Hunger Partnership, shares her experience about a recent visit to a unique farm in an impoverished area of southwestern Georgia. The farm produces fruits and vegetables for specific medical diets (e.g. diabetes). As a former nurse, Unterman illustrates how the produce grown at this farm serves as a form of medicine for its patrons.

“I think it’s very important that the Pharm-cy to Table Farm in Sylvester, Ga., connects the dots between the health care community and communities in need,” she said. “I suggest reaching out to your local hospital systems, whether they’re large or small. The hospitals are getting a lot of publicity; they like it. They are going to start tracking their health statistics to see, in that particular neighborhood, the difference of healthy eating versus not having access to fruits and vegetables year-round.

“Oftentimes, in very low-income communities, you don’t have exposure to the arts. That’s a critical component of culture, making you feel good, and exposure to different things. Throughout the garden, they have pieces of artwork.”

Listen to full interview with Unterman.

Photos from the Pharm-cy to Table farm in Sylvester, Ga., 2018.

Representative John Mizuno (D), Hawaii

Mizuno, chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, details his work in launching universal free school meals for students and expanding SNAP in Hawaii. After the recent volcanic eruptions, he learns of Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) which can be used as a critical support for Hawaiians who continue to suffer in the aftermath. 

“For Hawaii, we bring in $1 billion in pure federal funding through SNAP,” he said. “I’ve always told our constituency—the people of Hawaii—that it’s a 2-for-1. Number one, it brings in nearly $1 billion in pure federal funds and, for every $1 in federal SNAP funding, it generates $1.80 to the local economy. Second, and most importantly, it feeds our hungry, our poor, our homeless, our children, low-income families, elderly, disabled—people that just can’t afford their proper dietary nutrition intake. So, it’s a win-win. It’s an economic driver and benefit to our state and we are feeding our people that most need it and we can allow them to become self-sufficient.

“The fact that we’ve just had—as the world knows now—the Big Island, the Puna area, has been devastated by volcanic activity. It’s heart-wrenching to see the lava overtake houses and property—it’s been pure destruction. At the same time, we’re in awe of Pele, the Goddess of the Volcano. So, culturally, we respect what has happened, however, our people are in need. In coming to the Hunger Partnership Leadership meeting today, I found out that there is D-SNAP, Disaster SNAP. Once the president confirms that the area is a disaster, within two weeks of that declaration, we can get SNAP to the people that need it.”

Listen to full interview with Mizuno

Senator Judy Lee (R), North Dakota

Lee, chair of the Senate Human Services Committee, reflects on the disappearing knowledge among younger generations of how to grow and prepare food. By describing programs in her state, such as cooking classes at a medical foundation and gardening instruction at a daycare, she makes the case that encouraging self-sufficiency is equally as important as providing direct hunger relief.

“I live in state where there is a large rural area—most of the state is rural, frankly. Thirty-five out of 53 counties have fewer than six people per square mile. They have enough ground to garden and almost all of them do,” she said.

“We need to feed the children who are hungry now. We need the backpack programs in school, the free and reduced-price breakfast and lunches to make sure that nobody is hungry today. But then we need to take those same children and help them learn how to do those things for themselves. ... Let’s have a short-term solution: let’s feed people. And then let’s have a longer-term solution: Help them feed themselves.”

Listen to full interview with Lee.

Senator Eddie Lucio (D), Texas

Lucio, co-chair of the NCSL Hunger Partnership, describes the work he has done in his district to ensure access to food for children in the summertime, expand the school breakfast and lunch programs, and create a mobile food trailer to bring food to low-income neighborhoods. He shares the unique challenges of addressing hunger on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I was one of 10 kids, we were 12 in the family. It was hard to find housing and get all the way through the month ... my dad had credit at the local grocery store so that we could make it through,” he said. “Nine of us went through university and got our degrees. We’re blessed—I tell my family, my grandchildren: We can choose what we eat. Other people don’t have that ability. We’re thinking ‘what are we going to eat tonight?’ They’re thinking whether they will eat, period.

“Now, we have something very unique that maybe people in New York City or Oklahoma City—or those who are not anywhere close to the border of the U.S.—do not have. We have those, our neighbors, that come to the border that are hungry, that are naked, that are homeless, that are—quite frankly—refugees. We also have to address their needs. We should never turn our back on anyone. We have a moral obligation to feed those that come here completely in need and worried about what will happen to them the next day.”

Listen to the full interview with Lucio.

SNAP Resources

Interviews recorded and article written by Rosa Rada, Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow for the NCSL Hunger Partnership, July 2018. For more information, visit the Hunger and Nutrition homepage.