by Jonathan Ammons, 100 Days in Appalachia
May 9, 2018
The screen door slams, punctuating our conversation as a couple navigates a sleeping baby, undisturbed and still in her car seat, through the entryway of the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry headquarters in Black Mountain, North Carolina. The shelter provides relief in myriad ways for folks who find themselves in a pinch here in the eastern-most corner of Buncombe County, just down the hill from the Asheville. Food, clothing, wood for the wood stove and stipends for gas are all distributed from this quaint and mostly volunteer-run community center. The ministry serves as the last bastion of refuge for many that find themselves down and out in the foothills of Appalachia. But recent chatter from the White House surrounding the upcoming renewal of the Farm Bill, which regulates food relief, has local pantries concerned for the future well-being of the people they serve here.
“It is a different generation,” said Amy Meier. As the Buncombe County Outreach Coordinator for MANNA, the primary food bank in western North Carolina, she sets up shop on the dining room table in the break room at SVCM every other week with a laptop, a pocket scanner and a hotspot for internet. In many ways, she has become a reliable port in the storm, helping anyone who walks in sign up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the modern iteration of food stamps.
“It’s a different world than when my parents grew up,” she said. “I was raised from farm people in the Midwest, and our ethic was that if you work really hard, you could raise your family and it would pay off. You put in your 40 hours, and you can not only feed your family, but you can have a decent living and a nice life, and maybe even send your kids to college and have a vacation. But that’s just not the world we live in anymore, and so people still have those values and feel guilty that they can’t make that happen. People are saying, ‘What happened to that American dream again? I didn’t expect to be a millionaire, but I did think it wouldn’t be this hard by now.’”
Emerging from the clouds of the recession, the ground below looks quite different now in the American economic landscape. While the national unemployment rate sits at a comfortable 4.1 percent, having steadily declined since its 2010 peak of 10 percent, the number of minimum wage jobs has seen a steady increase, as has the average housing cost, energy cost and even the cost of food.
Cities like Asheville, former bastions of low cost rent, have seen a steady uptick in the wake of the “Airbnb boom,” and the small town real estate renaissance, forcing a median and low income diaspora of families to move to the outskirts of town. Those remaining in the city are left to fend for themselves in low wage jobs with competitive hours.
In 2017, SVCM provided food to 4,670 households in a region where the entire population is just less than 13,000, according to 2010 census data, although the region has grown in the last eight years. And while the numbers of SNAP users declined significantly in the U.S. overall since the throws of the recession, 43 million Americans still rely on food stamps as a supplement to help keep food on the table.
A 2015 survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service found North Carolina to be the eighth-most food insecure state in the nation. In 2016, more than 20,300 western North Carolinians received SNAP.
“What we see that a lot of people don’t understand is that about 45 percent of the people that receive food assistance have earned income. Almost half your caseloads are already working,” said Phillip Hardin, economic services director at the Buncombe County Department of Health & Human Services. “They are working, but it’s just not enough to get off of assistance.”
“Food insecurity is huge in our area, and we know that,” said Cheryl Wilson, the director of SVCM. She said that her clients depend on the bank to supplement their food stamps and what they can buy monthly.
“Food stamps typically only last about three weeks, which is why we provide food every 21 days, to help get them through that fourth week while they wait for their next stamps to come in.”
MANNA’s director Hannah Randall said that “for every one meal that we provide at MANNA, SNAP provides 11. So we can’t make up the difference if SNAP is significantly cut for people. When you think about the fact that we are churning out the equivalent of 39,500 meals a day, and that is just one out of the 12 needed, we can’t make up that difference there.”
“The Bi-Lo here has just closed, and last year we got 53,000 pounds of food from them, so for us that is a big loss,” Wilson said. While the pantry receives food from MANNA, donations from churches and from grocery stores, and even buys its own food from an Aldi in Asheville, the closure of that Bi-Lo means that this food desert is left with even more of a deficit. “Food is always needed, and there are many days where the shelves cannot stay open,” she said.
The federal program that would become SNAP was first penned in 1933 through the bipartisan Farm Bill, designed to permanently link agricultural subsidies with hunger relief programs at the time of the Great Depression. The idea was to use existing markets and food distribution systems to reduce cost and help feed families in need,while simultaneously providing stimulus to the nation’s farmers. Families would be freed to spend their tepid income to cover needs beyond groceries, which would, in turn, boost the overall economy.
Although just two percent of the national budget is allocated to SNAP, Moody’s Analytics calculates that the program generates $2 in economic activity for every single federal dollar spent.
Both President Trump’s proposed Farm Bill and Congress’ version, which passed in April, have been heavily criticized for hitting poverty-ridden areas like the Swannanoa Valley where it hurts. For instance, while the 2014 Farm Bill already required able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 45 to work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week, the Congressional draft would increase that age to 59 and would pile on 20 hours of job training classes, further burdening a demographic that is already largely employed and forcing the costs for these programs onto already overburdened state and county agencies. In 2014, the Farm Bill included a pilot project testing the effectiveness of work requirements. That program has not yet concluded, but the current Congress has proceeded with extensive work requirements in their bill despite not having the data from that four-year pilot program.
While some proposed areas of the budget would face insignificant increases, overall, legislators are proposing a 10 percent cut from the last Farm Bill, MANNA’s communications director, Kara Irani said, with the majority of those cuts coming from SNAP.
The bill would also lower the income eligibility significantly, which would hit high-rent cities with low wages, like Asheville, particularly hard. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities predicts that such changes would remove benefits from more than 2 million people, primarily families that are already working. A third of of those affected would be children. Their April report also expresses concern that the addition of extensive work requirements and paperwork to prove it would put undue burden on state systems. “Experience suggests that the bill’s proposed work requirements would leave substantial numbers of low-income people who have various barriers to employment — such as very limited skills or mental health issues like depression — with neither earnings nor food assistance.”
Decades of cuts to the system left slim pickings for further trimming. “When we look at who is receiving food benefits through SNAP, it is the majority working families, children and seniors,” Irani said “You can be making well over the poverty threshold here and still not be able to afford food. It’s a huge grey area for us and a huge grey area for legislators. Any kind of hit on that side will really affect our area.”
The current ceiling for SNAP recipients is just $26,000 a year. A full time minimum wage worker only scrapes in a hair over $15,000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that nearly one in four Americans, 80.4 million workers, earned minimum wage in 2017. North Carolina shares that one in four ratio, with 2.5 million minimum wage workers in the state. Asheville’s Just Economics calculates that a single person living in the city would require an income of more than $27,000 a year just to get by. A single beneficiary of SNAP can receive no more than $192 per month, while a family of four can receive no more than $640. More than half do not receive that full amount, but what they do receive, and being able to put that cash towards rent, can often mean the difference between stability and eviction.
While lawmakers squabble over the nickels and dimes — the entire Farm Bill makes up just 4 percent of the national budget — the overall consensus from the boots on the ground in the battle against hunger in food deserts like western North Carolina seems to indicate that not only is the SNAP program helping folks to crawl out of poverty (the majority of SNAP recipients only use the program for around six months), but that it is extremely efficient at doing so. Programs like Double Up Food Bucks, recently piloted by Bountiful Cities, match SNAP users dollar for dollar when they buy local produce, doubling their buying power and putting money directly into the pockets of local grocers and local farmers. Chipping away at those protections could force millions of Americans who have almost totally clawed their way out of the poverty of the recession back into the hole.
Despite an army of volunteers and 70 percent of their food coming from donations, MANNA still found themselves with $5 million in operating expenses in 2016 from food distribution. Randall warns that while changes are needed to the system, cutting cost on food relief, the most basic of human needs, should not be an option.
“Complex problems require complex solutions,” she said. “And when they are oversimplified, it can really leave innocent people without the food that they need to live a normal, healthy life.”
Jonathan Ammons (@jonathanammons) is a writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician based in Asheville, North Carolina.