With an estimated 100,000 people across Lake and Porter counties lacking access or the resources to obtain healthy food, the head of the Region's food bank is concerned about talk of revamping federal food assistance.
If the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, colloquially known as food stamps, is replaced as proposed with pre-assembled boxes of shelf-stable goods, it will wind up serving fewer people and put greater demand on the already-taxed food pantries and soup kitchens in the area, said Steve Beekman, executive director of the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana.
"The SNAP program really works," he said.
The idea called "America's Harvest Box" was floated in February in the Trump administration's 2019 budget proposal, tucked inside a plan to slash SNAP by roughly $213 billion, or 30 percent, over the next 10 years. Households that receive more than $90 in SNAP benefits each month — roughly 81 percent of households in the program, or about 16.4 million people — would be affected.
Worsening access to food?
Beekman was unsure how many SNAP recipients live in Northwest Indiana, but he said "food insecure" individuals in the Region are in need of 17 million meals a year.
The Food Bank only is able to provide 4.5 million meals annually through its 113 affiliated pantries and soup kitchens, according to calculations provided through Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap project. Programs such as SNAP are needed to help make up the difference.
The proposed box program will make this shortage worse, he said, because the boxes are 50 times more expensive than the SNAP program due to additional costs — buying boxes, labor to fill the boxes and delivery.
"There's just a lot of logistical challenges associated with that," Beekman said.
It also will result in fewer people served because not everyone on SNAP will qualify for the new program.
The end result, he said, will be greater demand for aid through the Food Bank and its affiliated food pantries and soup kitchens, which serve an estimated 22,000 people a month.
Also at risk with the proposed federal government overhaul is the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides 1,036 food boxes each month to low-income seniors in the Region, Beekman said. The United States Department of Agriculture program is funneled through the state to the local food bank to administer, he said.
Jennifer Wright, CEO of the Hilltop Food Pantry in Valparaiso, said she believes the proposed box program could improve the situation by providing better quality food to recipients.
She disagreed it would result in less food overall.
"It's hard to make an opinion when we don't know what the food boxes will look like," Wright said.
Beekman said he is uncomfortable with the government taking away the recipient's choice and deciding what it thinks these families should be eating.
Grocery stores also are concerned about losing a significant chunk of their business, especially during economic downturns when more customers rely on food stamps to put food on the table.
"The way we understand the proposed changes, this would have a negative impact on the supermarket industry," Strack & Van Til President and CEO Jeff Strack said. "While food stamps numbers have decreased since the recession, it still is a considerable part of our business mix. It is also unclear the exact mechanics of how this proposed change would be administered."
The loss of food stamp sales would particularly be tough on supermarkets that serve low-income or mixed-income communities, Strack said. Grocers across the country are so concerned they have mobilized to action.
"We have been working closely with the National Grocers Association on their efforts to the proposed changes," Strack said.
The National Grocers Association, which represents an industry that employs 1 million Americans and generates $131 billion in sales a year, has been lobbying Congress to preserve the food stamp program, which it says benefits farmers, low-income residents and grocers that already have razor-thin profit margins in a highly competitive business. The industry group is raising concerns about the viability of inner-city and rural grocery stores, warning that closures could widen food deserts and leave more people without convenient access to fresh, healthy fruit and produce.
"If the distribution of nutritional benefits reverted to the responsibility of the federal government, this would be a major step backwards," the NGA wrote in a letter to Congress. "Nutritional food access challenges would grow worse throughout the country, as supermarkets would struggle to survive in underserved communities. Not only would this exacerbate the food desert problem, but it would also negatively impact ancillary economic activity in many communities where the local economy is heavily reliant on the success of Main Street supermarkets. Fierce competition among food retailers, which operate on less than 2 percent net profit margins, drives consumer prices down and ultimately benefits those on a tight budget. Without competitive forces involved in the market for food, there is little doubt that such a proposal would increase food insecurity."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.