Opinion Columns & Blogs

State food assistance is critical to the fight against hunger

Northwest Harvest has contributed to a basic safety net for Washington's most vulnerable residents for over 40 years thanks to the support of tens of thousands of people around the state who join us in our fight against hunger with their contributions of food, money and time as volunteers.

With your help, we are doing everything in our power to help people have nutritious food to eat, and yet we continue to watch the problem of hunger in our communities grow. Our network of food banks and meal programs has experienced a 35 percent increase in need for services in the past three years due to the recession.

According to the 2010 Hungry in Washington Report released by the Children’s Alliance, one in seven households (14.7 percent) in our state struggled to put enough food on the table — the highest rate since the United States Department of Agriculture began recording this figure in 1995.

As an organization committed to fighting hunger, we are extremely disappointed with the proposal to eliminate the state food assistance program, a state-run food stamp program for legal immigrants and refugees.

Local food banks and meal programs are already stretched beyond capacity as they have seen visits increasing and donations decreasing because of the recession. The charitable hunger response system alone cannot adequately provide for the increased numbers of people in need that we will see from the elimination of state food assistance.

Gov. Chris Gregoire proposes providing an additional $15 million to food banks around the state to make up for the elimination of $60 million in state food stamp benefits, and she suggests that nonprofits and the faith-based organizations will need to step up to be the sole safety net for people in need. But when it comes to hunger, we simply cannot do it alone.

The services food banks provide are not a replacement for the loss of food stamp dollars. Indeed, they are supplemental services, and many families rely on both to have enough to eat.

Food stamps are dollars that provide people with choices at the grocery store so they can obtain the dietary-specific or culturally relevant food they need that they may not be getting at their local food bank. Grocery stores are often open more days and for longer hours than food banks. Importantly, food stamps also have a positive economic impact — for every $5 in benefits spent at local grocery stores, $9 in local economic activity are generated.

Northwest Harvest firmly believes we all have a role to play in ending hunger in Washington, including the state government. Nonprofit and faith-based food banks and meal programs will continue to do all they can to meet the growing need, and Northwest Harvest will continue to do everything in our power to support them.

But without services such as state food assistance, more parents will be skipping meals so their kids can eat, and more kids will be going with less and less. The effects will be disastrous for these families, for our communities and for our state, and will linger well beyond our current recession.

Shelley Rotondo is executive director at Northwest Harvest, which collects and distributes food to approximately 300 hunger programs in Washington state.