As the Trump administration sets its sights on cutting federal nutrition programs, millions of Americans could stop receiving aid and millions of undocumented immigrants are afraid to sign up for the help they desperately need. Leaders in the anti-hunger movement in California gathered in San Francisco on November 9 for a discussion, co-hosted by the Food & Environment Reporting Network and the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, of what it takes to fight hunger in the age of Trump.
More than half of adult Americans will receive food assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at some point in their lifetime. In California, more than 10 percent of the state was on SNAP as of 2015. Each year, the program costs taxpayers $53 billion, but every $1 of SNAP benefits generates $1.79 in economic activity, according to the USDA.
By purchasing food, people on federal food assistance create jobs — for grocery store employees, meatpackers, farmworkers, and truckers, said Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, and one of the evening’s panelists. “Every billion (dollars) we receive in California in SNAP benefits, creates 14,000 jobs,” she said.
But the White House has proposed cutting support for SNAP by 25 percent, while tightening eligibility requirements, especially for so-called able-bodied adults. The administration also hopes to lower funding to the federal food assistance program known as WIC, which serves 7.8 million women, infants and children each year.
“When we talk about more people living below the poverty line as a result of some of the proposals coming out of D.C., we’re talking about our failure to recognize their humanity,” said Bartholow. “When we cut SNAP, it doesn’t mean [people will] find money to go find food in some other way. It means they go hungry.”
But even if they’re eligible for support, many people are hesitant to sign up for it due to heightened fear about Trump’s immigration policies. “Immediately following the election, we had people calling us not to ask for help signing up with CalFresh (California’s food assistance program) or SNAP,” but for help cancelling their benefits, said Elizabeth Gomez, associate director of client services at the Alameda County Community Food Bank, which serves over 300,000 people annually, or one of five residents in Alameda County. The bank fielded at least 40 such calls in the first few weeks after Trump was elected, something Gomez said had never happened before.
Some people are afraid that, by signing up, they will be added to a national database and tracked down by immigration services if they or someone in their family is undocumented. Many also fear that by receiving food assistance they would count as a “public charge,” and thus be disqualified for ever earning citizenship, which Gomez said is one of the many mistruths that shadows food assistance. She made clear that applicants do not have to offer up proof of citizenship or even their names to receive emergency food assistance, and doing so doesn’t bar them from becoming a citizen later on.
At least not yet, noted Bartholow, but the Trump administration is considering adding food benefits and healthcare to the list of government services that designate someone a “public charge.”