Gina Cornia: Utah’s senators should support help for Utah’s hungry

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt food insecure. I remember a conversation with power company, making payment arrangements so I could still buy food for myself and son Jacob, tossing and turn at night with a knot in my stomach wondering if I would be able to pay the rent. I can still feel the hot flush of shame for being poor.

Today, there are tens of thousands of Utah families and individuals experiencing that same dread. The pandemic has revealed for all of us what many of us have known for a long time — that many of us are, if not all, are one disruptive economic event away from ruin.

This is why federal nutrition programs are so important. The purpose of programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Child Nutrition Programs is to provide temporary support when family financial situations hit a rough patch.

This week it is expected that the U.S. Senate will introduce a fourth piece of legislation to address the fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic. This is an opportunity for Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney to support provisions that will not only help secure food for struggling Utahns but pump much-needed cash into the economy.

SNAP is one of the best responses to an economic downturn, boosting the economy by $1.50 to $1.80 for each $1 invested. Nearly 100% of SNAP benefits are spent each month. In January of 2020, Utahns spent more than $18.7 million in benefits. These benefits were used across the state in grocery stores, putting food in the cupboards and keeping many of those households from visiting an already stretched emergency food system.

We are asking Sen. Lee and Sen. Romney to support a 15% increase to the maximum benefit until economic conditions improve. We also ask them to support an increase to the shamefully modest $16 minimum benefit to $30. Many of the people who receive the minimum benefit are seniors and individuals with disabilities. Increasing the minimum benefit would give those households almost double to what they receive now to buy food.

Another important issue is extending those child nutrition waivers for child nutrition programs. Allowing meals to be served under the provisions of the Summer Food Program would streamline and simplify meal service. Giving child nutrition directors the flexibility to provide meals to students, regardless of what school ends up looking like, is crucial to school reopening. More than 30% of Utah students participate in free and reduced price meals.

Recent events have made the conversation about access to food more important than ever. According to recent data as many as 17.4% of Utahns experienced food insecurity in April through June, up from just over 8% in February. As you might expect, our most vulnerable and underrepresented families and individuals take the brunt of food insecurity.

According to research conducted by Northwestern University, based on Census data, shows that Black, Indigenous and people of color communities are currently hardest hit by food insecurity. Black and Latinx households with children experienced food insecurity rates more than 10% higher than their white neighbors, at 38% and 36.2% respectively.

As the impacts from the pandemic linger and economic recovery is uncertain, federal nutrition program should be our first line of defense for those who need some temporary help in buying food.

Utahns are facing uncertain economic days now and into the foreseeable future. Utahns Against Hunger urges Utah’s senators to support the inclusion of provisions that will strengthen federal nutrition programs. Their constituents need their leadership more than ever, no one should lose sleep over the anxiety of food insecurity.

Gina Cornia

Gina Cornia is executive director of Utahns Against Hunger.