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White House wants to combat hunger and disease by raising minimum wage and expanding SNAP benefits, tax credits

COURTESY PHOTO: OREGON FOOD BANK - Oregon Food Bank volunteers prepare bags for distribution. The organization has recorded a significant increase in the number of people relying on food pantries and food programs since the start of the pandemic.It's been more than 50 years since the White House announced a plan to address food, nutrition and hunger, but a new federal strategy aims to curb food scarcity and diet-related disease.

On Tuesday, Sept, 27, the Biden-Harris administration rolled out plans to expand Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and tax credits, while increasing healthy eating and exercise among Americans.

The announcement couldn't come soon enough. In Oregon, there's been a sharp increase in the number of people who face food insecurity since the pandemic, despite a low unemployment rate across the country.

The Oregon Food Bank went from serving 860,000 people in Oregon and Southwest Washington in 2019, to 1.2 million people in 2021. This year, the organization expects to help 1.5 million people.

"We're at historic levels of hunger," said Susannah Morgan, CEO of the Oregon Food Bank. She said food assistance programs should be considered the last tier in America's social safety net program. If more people are relying on food pantries or federal food benefits, that means the whole system is askew.

"The best defense against (poverty) is offense: living wages, access to housing, to food, and when we look around, we are not meeting the needs of everyone," Morgan said. "The final line of defense is the food assistance program. When you see more people asking for food it's because the social safety nets aren't working. I think we're a warning sign."

Morgan notes that the majority of people the Food Bank serves have jobs and income, but aren't bringing in enough to comfortably pay bills and buy groceries each month. With inflation and a dramatic increase in rent prices over the past two years, people are feeling the pinch.

"There are a lot of folks living with food insecurity," Morgan said. "They're living on a fixed income and it's never enough. They're making trade-offs between paying for heating or food, or medicine or food. The root cause of poverty is systemic inequities."

President Biden's announcement this week came with an ambitious goal: ending hunger, while increasing healthy eating and physical activity by 2030, in an effort to reduce diet-related diseases and health disparities.

To get there, the president proposes changes to food labeling on the front of packages, updating nutrition criteria for healthy meals, expanding incentives for fruit and vegetables in SNAP benefits, reducing sodium in the food supply and testing out meals medically tailored to patients in the Medicare program, among other measures.

"More than 50 years since the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health, the U.S. has yet to end hunger and is facing an urgent, nutrition-related health crisis—the rising prevalence of diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension and certain cancers," Biden's White House announcement states. "The consequences of food insecurity and diet-related diseases are significant, far reaching, and disproportionately impact historically underserved communities."

That's a step in the right direction, the Oregon Food Bank CEO said, but addressing the root cause of hunger and empowering people to buy healthier food will take more than an expansion of welfare programs.

Morgan said she sees stronger programs in place now, compared with two years ago, including the expansion of a crucial benefit during the pandemic: the child tax credit.

President Biden's plan calls for pushing Congress to permanently extend the expanded Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit while raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and making sure more people are able to access health insurance coverage through Medicaid.

The Child Tax Credit—an existing federal benefit put in place in 1997 that allows households with dependent children to receive a credit on their taxes—was expanded with the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act. According to the White House, the expansion "helped cut child poverty nearly in half" while reducing food insecurity by nearly 26%, leading to the lowest rates of childhood hunger ever recorded.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 28.2 million people claimed the tax credit in 2017, with the average filer receiving a $998 credit.

But even an economy that has seen wages increase along with demand for employees, is still struggling to prevent a large portion of people from needing social services. That's largely because of federal rules tied to SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, that cut off many immigrants from getting help.

"As a nation, our single biggest safety net program for addressing hunger is SNAP," Morgan noted. "By federal law, SNAP is only available to people who have been legal citizens of the United States for 60 months. That means 112,000 of our neighbors in Oregon aren't getting help."

"I just fundamentally believe that food is a human right," Morgan said, emphatically. "It should not rely on the color of your skin, who you love or where you were born. The richest country in the nation should be able to ensure that everybody has enough food to eat."


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