It’s not too late for lawmakers to address hunger

As state lawmakers negotiate a 2013-15 state budget in the final days of the session, they need to pay more attention to the growing problem of hunger in our state.

The Great Recession has swelled the ranks of those who go to bed at night hungry — one of seven people statewide and, more tragically, one in four children.

Prior to the recession, the state ranked 30th in food insecurity, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture measures. Now the state ranks 14th in food insecurity. Looked at another way, only six other states experienced more growth in hunger rates between 2010-2011.

As a state, we’re headed in the wrong direction.

Since 2008, food banks across the state have seen a 35 percent increase in demand for their services. At the same time, state lawmakers have sliced away at programs designed to feed the hungry, hoping against reason that charitable groups and private donations will adequately fill food baskets.

The stagnant economy, and continued state and federal cuts in other social service programs, are driving more and more people to the food banks. As a result, the overall amount of food available for each client is on the decline.

“The House and Senate budgets assume that charity can pick up the slack, but that’s not possible,” said Christina Wong, public policy manager for Northwest Harvest, which is part of the Washington Food Coalition, which advocates in the fight against hunger.

It’s as if all the political energy spent on K-12 education, failed gun control legislation and legalized marijuana and other high-profile issues has blinded lawmakers to the fact that such a basic need as food is not being met in thousands of homes across the state.

It’s late in the session, but not too late to bolster funding for three core state programs aimed at taking a bite out of hunger. The Food Coalition knows time is running out. However, the coalition makes a convincing argument to restore historic funding to critical programs and increase funding to reflect growing demand for services.

For instance, the Emergency Food Assistance Program helps food banks purchase food and cover operating costs. The program is funded at $10.6 million in the House and Senate budgets. It needs another $3.7 million to handle the 35 percent increase in food bank clients. That’s a reasonable request.

Then there’s the state Food Assistance Program, which is a food stamp look-alike program created in 1997 for immigrants legally residing in the state. The program took a 50 percent cut in July 2012. The Senate budget restores $9.4 million, or about half of the 2012 cuts. The House budget does nothing for the program.

The cuts a year ago put 14,000 children in immigrant families at risk of hunger and deepens racial and economic inequality.

There’s a certain irony in not fully funding the program. Hungry kids don’t do well in school. What sense does it make to beef up funding for K-12, then send more kids to school unable to learn because their basic need for food isn’t being met?

The Senate and House budgets do resurrect two programs eliminated in 2011 that help small farmers sell their fresh produce to local schools. But they’re only funded at 50 percent of their original budget.

In a state with a rich and diverse agricultural economy, it seems feeding hungry children wouldn’t be that hard. Collectively, we must all work together to end hunger. It’s not too late for the 2013 state Legislature to lend a greater hand.