By Emily Gray Brosious | Originally published at Gapers Block | Nov. 25, 2013
(Featured photo: Food Not Bombs grocery distribution and mural at United Church of Rogers Park / by Emily Gray Brosious)
As millions of low-income Americans face reduced federal food assistance this winter, the necessary role of grassroots groups working to stem the tide of hunger in Chicago is clearer than ever.
One such organization providing food to Chicagoans-in-need is Food Not Bombs. The group started in Boston in 1980 and has since spread to hundreds of cities across the world. Food Not Bombs has three Chicago-area chapters in Pilsen, Humboldt Park and Rogers Park.
Community activists come together each week with their respective chapters to prepare and serve free meals in public spaces while promoting a platform of non-violent resistance to war and militarism, Dante, an organizer with Pilsen Food Not Bombs, explained in an interview.
“We serve our food, pass out literature and talk with people about wars and other things going on in the political realm,” he said.
The groups get their food donations from local, mom and pop grocers around the city, Dante said. He and other organizers gather Sunday mornings at the Magi Cultural Center in Pilsen to prepare food for that day’s serve at Plaza Tenochtitlan.
“We don’t have degrees in this, but we’re very skilled cooks,” he said. “We mostly do vegetarian and vegan meals.”
Rogers Park Food Not Bombs serves hot meals under the Morse Red Line station every Sunday as well. Following meal service, organizers distribute groceries at the United Church of Rogers Park down the block.
Phillip Robinson, a church liaison who helps coordinate Sunday grocery distribution, said about 80 to 90 people come to the church for groceries on a weekly basis.
Willine Glenn is a low-income Rogers Park resident who is considered too wealthy, by federal standards, to qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
“I don’t even bother with it anymore,” she said in an interview at the Rogers Park grocery distribution. “I come here for groceries every Sunday, thankfully.”
There are gaps in state assistance for people in need, Dante said. Groups like Food Not Bombs help to fill some of those gaps by providing food in public spaces, where people can easily access it, he said. He estimates that Pilsen Food Not Bombs serves about 30 people on a regular, weekly basis.
Though that number might grow in coming months. On Nov. 1, Congress allowed a $45 billion federal SNAP spending stimulus to expire. The stimulus was authorized in 2009 to counteract effects of the 2007 economic recession.
SNAP is the largest hunger safety net program in the United States that helps low-income people buy food. The majority of SNAP recipients are children, disabled or elderly.
Feeding America, a national network of food banks, said in a statement that these cuts will result in the loss of nearly 3.4 billion meals for low-income Americans in 2014.
“That is more meals than the entire Feeding America Network of 200 food banks distributed through 61,000 food pantries and soup kitchens in 2013,” they said.
According to the Illinois Department of Human Services, nearly 2 million Illinois residents will be affected by these benefit reductions. Approximately 47 million will be affected nationwide.
SNAP program spending follows economic and poverty trends. This is why the federal government authorized a stimulus to compensate for the 2007 global recession. However, studies show that poverty rates are still relatively high in the U.S. Too high, some say, to merit billions of dollars in SNAP reductions.
The World Bank defines extreme poverty as surviving on less than $2 dollars, per day, per person, every month. A 2012 National Poverty Center study shows the number of households living in extreme poverty in the U.S. has more than doubled within the last 15 years to around 1.65 million, including 3.55 million children.
U.S Census Bureau data shows the nation’s 2013 supplementary poverty rate, which counts federal benefits as income, was 16 percent. This was up from 15 percent in 2012. SNAP kept over 5 million people out of poverty in 2010.
A recent UNICEF study reports the U.S. has nearly the highest rate of child poverty among the world’s 35 wealthiest nations, at 23 percent. The only economically advanced country with a larger rate of child poverty than the U.S. is Romania.
As food stamp budget cuts go into effect, millions of Americans may fall back below the poverty line. Children, who comprise the majority of SNAP beneficiaries, are especially at-risk.
Keith McHenry, a cofounding member of Food Not Bombs, points to a bloated national defense budget as one major economic policy contributing to insufficient social safety net spending in this country.
McHenry has seen the number of homeless and hungry people rise considerably across the country since starting the food distribution organization in 1980, he said in an interview. This rise in poverty has been notably accompanied by a substantial rise in U.S. defense spending, he said.
“Money that would be spent on healthcare, education and many other social services is diverted to the military,” he said. “So, cuts are made in the programs that once kept people from being homeless. We can see a big effort is currently being made take funds from social programs to fund the Pentagon’s programs.”
A report from non-profit news center Common Dreams echoes McHenry’s assertion. House Republicans have been pushing for cuts to social safety net program budgets to avert major cuts in defense spending, it said.
House Republicans say the SNAP cuts are necessary because the program has grown out of control in recent years.
Indiana Republican representative Marlin Stutzman, who led efforts to split food stamp spending from the overall farm subsidy bill, said these SNAP reductions are designed to “Eliminate loopholes, waste, fraud, and abuse, while ensuring those who meet the current income and asset eligibility requirements continue to receive the benefits they need.”
House Democrats disagree, saying these “draconian” cuts will plunge more Americans into poverty.
The House Democratic Budget Committee said the GOP’s 2014 budget proposes drastic cuts to non-defense discretionary spending, including food stamp assistance, while safeguarding a comparable majority of Department of Defense spending.
U.S. defense budgets rose significantly following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. However, defense spending has gone down somewhat in recent years. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, in 2012, military spending dropped from $711 billion to $668 billion, representing the largest decline since 1991.
Still, the United States spends more on defense and military programs than the rest of the world’s top 10 military powers combined. The U.S. outspends China, the world’s second-biggest military power, by about 6-to-1.
Food Not Bombs organizers like McHenry and Dante say that a good portion of that defense budget would be better spent on programs of social uplift.
Until that happens, local Food Not Bombs groups will continue doing their part each week to provide a food safety net for Chicagoans in need.