Feeding America concerned about legislation

Published 3:29 pm Wednesday, February 28, 2024

By MICHAEL J. COLLINS, Bowling Green Daily News

Feeding America, Kentucky’s Heartland provided over 1.4 million pounds of food to Warren County alone last year, but its future work hangs on two pieces of legislation.

Executive Director Charles Dennis, who took over the position in December, told the Daily News that its work across 42 counties could be hindered by a state bill’s passage and a federal bill’s stalling.

He said the General Assembly’s HB367 would make it harder for Kentuckians to access food programs. At the federal level, Congress has stalled negotiations to reauthorize the Farm Bill, which includes provisions relating to subsidized meal programs, safety nets for farmers and various other programs.

HB367, which passed 61-33 this month in The Kentucky House Committee on Families and Children, seeks to reinstate asset-testing in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility, meaning those who exceed certain financial limits cannot utilize food assistance.

On Wednesday, Dennis issued a statement to all Kentucky senators asking they vote no on the bill.

“This bill would worsen the issue of food insecurity in our region and throughout Kentucky at a time when food insecurity in our nation is at the highest level seen in a decade,” he stated. “HB 367 would create a ‘benefits cliff’ by de-incentivizing families and individuals to save money and be financially responsible in order to meet an asset driven (vs. an income driven) financial threshold to qualify for SNAP.”

Federal policy allows the state to instead use the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to determine SNAP eligibility using less stringent benchmarks, though HB367 seeks to change that.

SNAP’s work requirements can often be waived in certain parts of Kentucky by a state cabinet, but HB367 would require future waivers be approved by Kentucky legislators.

Dennis said these changes would severely limit the number of people who qualify for SNAP, making accessibility more difficult as food insecurity rates climb nationally.

The USDA reported in 2023 the largest increase in food insecurity nationally since the 2008 Recession, with over 44 million individuals, 13 million being children, living in food-insecure households.

Bill sponsor Rep. Wade Williams, R-Earlington, said in an editorial earlier this month the bill aims to close “loopholes” that allow people to access services when they may not need them and claimed the current system discourages workforce participation.

“First, when ineligible individuals are enrolled in food stamps, resources are siphoned away from the truly needy,” Williams wrote. “Second, loopholes and barriers that keep Kentuckians out of the workforce are worsening our labor shortage and stifling economic growth.”

Dennis said the bill seeks to target able-bodied recipients of SNAP, though its intention is flawed and the impact extends much further.

“The language that is being used in defense of this bill is around work requirements,” Dennis said. “But the bill itself is misleading, and it actually would do harm to way more than just to this supposed group that it’s targeting, it would impact seniors, children, so many groups.”

He said for every meal that FAKH provides, SNAP offers nine. Limiting access to the program means a large increase in demand for FAKH services, Dennis said, an issue compounded by the Farm Bill’s holdup in Washington, D.C.

Dennis will soon travel to the nation’s capital alongside other Feeding America leaders to advocate for increased funding for SNAP and The Emergency Food Assistance Program through the Farm Bill’s reauthorization.

The bill requires a reauthorization every five years but received a one-year extension in 2023 to September 2024. Dennis said failure to update the bill could be “catastrophic” for the organization.

“Across our entire network of food banks that covers the entire country, about 20% of our food comes through TEFAP, so it’s a it’s a huge impact on what we do,” Dennis said.

In addition, TEFAP assistance helped Feeding America provide over a billion meals nationally last year, roughly 3 million of which came from FAKH.

He added the Farm Bill would also help support local farmers by increasing demand for their products and keeping money within a community or state.

The current Farm Bill still operates on a 2008 cost basis, made less effective by rising inflation rates in recent years. Dennis said inflation has squeezed FAKH hard as well, increasing food and transportation costs in its largely-rural service area.

FAKH would certainly weather the storm if the Farm Bill is not updated, Dennis said, but it would mean increased reliance on local partners, donations and grant funding, none of which is guaranteed or consistent.

This could also limit FAKH’s public education work aimed at nutrition and food access since resources must be diverted elsewhere.

“I can’t speak to the motivations (behind these bills), I’m not sure, but as daunting as it can be sometimes, I have confidence and hope that we can come together and understand each other better,” Dennis said.

Follow education reporter and Report for America corps member Michael J. Collins on X.com @MJCollinsNews or visit bgdailynews.com.