October 11, 2023
Too many Appalachian workers are teetering on the edge – they need more opportunities to succeed and more stability for their families, and that means ensuring every family has access to food. Right now, Congress is considering what to include in one of the most important pieces of legislation: The Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is a package of legislation that needs to be reauthorized every five years, and it expires this fall. The bill has an outsize impact on the landscape of farming and food in the US: its programs range from crop insurance for farmers to healthy food access for low-income families.
One of our top priorities is to press Congress to vote for a strong Farm Bill. That’s our chance to ensure five years of funding for life-saving food assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and extensions of SNAP like the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GuSNIP). More than 40 million Americans, including more than a quarter of rural Appalachian families with children, rely on this life-saving and family-sustaining food benefits program. Congress has to vote against any harmful measures that would further restrict food access.
Unfortunately, instead of expanding these essential programs, earlier this year Congress voted to cut benefits when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared over – boosts to our country’s food assistance programs kept millions of people out of poverty from 2020 to 2023, but those supplements ended on March 1st, leaving many families in the lurch.
That’s why we’ve been covering the Farm Bill closely this year. We’ve started by reaching out to dozens of partner groups to create our Appalachian Farm Bill Platform and a toolkit for people who want to engage in Farm Bill conversations in their community, as well as a series of events diving deeper into key issues that affect Appalachians. We also held a webinar to help folks both learn why SNAP – also known as food stamps or food assistance – is so important to Appalachian communities, and practice advocating for a stronger Farm Bill for Appalachia.
Our core message? Congress has an opportunity to pass a bill that will change the lives of millions of Americans. All they have to do is take it.
Why are nutrition programs so important to Appalachia?
Contrary to common misconceptions, food assistance benefits work like money — people can only spend SNAP dollars at grocery stores and participating farmers’ markets, and they can only purchase approved items with SNAP. Programs like the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GuSNIP) further incentivize food assistance recipients to choose the most nutritionally dense foods available – usually, they do so by stretching the SNAP funds that people receive when those funds are spent at a farmers’ market or used to purchase fruits and vegetables. Standard SNAP benefits don’t give families much to work with, either: following March 2023 cuts, the average household receives only $/person/day
The barriers to food access are systemic and concentrated: Rural communities and small towns have higher participation in food assistance than urban areas. Rural Appalachian communities also see higher rates of participation in SNAP than rural communities in other areas of the country. For example, 15% of percent of rural households rely on SNAP benefits, and rural counties account for nearly 90% of counties with a SNAP usage rate of 30% or greater.
Regionally-specific economic challenges are responsible for Appalachia’s disproportionately high need for food assistance. People turn to SNAP and other food assistance programs when they can’t access jobs that pay enough to feed their families. More than half of individuals receiving food assistance are employed, and nearly three quarters have worked for pay within the month or year that they are receiving benefits.
Unfortunately, some members of Congress cite those statistics as reasons to support cutting off food benefits for those who can’t document sufficient hours of paid work. These harsh and arbitrary policies successfully destabilize entire families and make job searches even more challenging, but they don’t magically transform the conditions that lead to structural unemployment. Research with our partners at the Ohio River Valley Institute has shown that about 1.2 million people in Central Appalachia would like to work full-time but are prevented from doing so.
Food assistance can give people the flexibility to move up the job ladder, but it often isn’t available to college students; people training for employment; or people on strike to demand higher pay, better benefits, and a voice on the job. Those limitations hurt labor mobility and mean that many people can’t take short-term opportunities for the sake of higher-paying work in the long term. Union membership and labor apprenticeships have long been a pathway to stability for entire communities in Appalachia. Similarly, a college education can set young people up to build wealth and share it here at home. Access to food is the first step to broadening those pathways out of poverty for young people looking to enter any kind of family-sustaining career.
And supporting food assistance for those who are unable to work fits right into our proud Appalachian tradition of community care. As noted by our partners at WV Center for Budget and Policy, nearly 45% of food assistance recipients are older adults or are themselves responsible for supporting a disabled family member; 60% of households receiving food assistance are families with children. Studies have linked food assistance to better health, lower risk of heart disease and better outcomes for older adults. Nationally, about 10% of working age people are disabled. But across Central Appalachia, that number is 19%, with some Appalachian counties seeing over one-third of the population with a disability. West Virginia, the only fully Appalachian state, has the highest disability rate in the country. These statistics make Appalachian communities especially vulnerable to cuts to food benefits.
Substance use disorder is another mental and physical health crisis that disproportionately affects our communities. However, outdated and punitive laws continue to bar individuals convicted of drug-related felonies from accessing food help in 20 states, including West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Those laws signal to those currently struggling with addiction that their attempts to turn their lives around will not be met with emotional or material support. Failing to affirm the human dignity of those who are struggling makes recovery from the impacts of opioid addiction harder for entire communities. Furthermore, numerous studies have shown upwards of 70% of returning citizens are food insecure due to significant barriers and discrimination in employment and housing, and that access to food benefits can have marked impacts on lowering recidivism.
Food assistance can also bring hope to entire economies. These benefits are spent immediately in local grocery stores and retailers, helping preserve those community assets and ensuring that they can offer a bountiful selection of food for all residents. Despite our abundant natural resources, many Appalachian communities are located in food deserts, which are areas that lack access to fresh fruit and vegetables and other healthful foods. A study by the USDA Economic Research Service showed that a dollar in food stamps generates $1.79 in additional economic activity. Scaled up, buying $50’s worth of groceries with SNAP benefits creates nearly $90 in economic activity in the community.
Beyond keeping our grocery stores open, when families use their benefits to buy food, those purchases stimulate employment in the food processing and distribution industries, which are typically concentrated in rural areas. Giving people purchasing power in the short term decreases their reliance on external support in the long term, because it helps us build sustainable local economies that can employ people at family-sustaining wages.
Lastly, many people need nutrition benefits because their employers don’t pay a living wage. Studies have shown that raising the minimum wage to only $12/hour could reduce spending on food assistance by $3.5 billion, without sacrificing the program’s poverty-reducing effects. One way or another, making sure people have what they need to live on is the cornerstone of an economy that respects all working people — with quality jobs and education, affordable healthcare and childcare — so people can work, take care of our families, and contribute to our communities.
Everyone in the U.S., and certainly everyone in Appalachia, should be urging our lawmakers to expand food assistance programs in the Farm Bill. Please join us in contacting your lawmaker to ensure they are aware of the importance of nutrition benefits for Appalachian communities. You can take action today by sending an email using our action tool.
Listen to our Farm Bill Playlist: