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Jeremy Everett: The TT Interview

The director of the Texas Hunger Initiative at Baylor University on hunger in Texas, why partisan approaches to alleviating hunger are flawed and how improving current programs can stimulate local economies.

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Congress is considering proposals to cut spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, by up to $16.5 billion nationally.

If federal lawmakers slash SNAP spending, the Texas Food Bank Network says, more than 300,000 Texans receiving benefits would be pushed off the rolls, and measures passed by the Legislature in 2001 to encourage recipients to become financially stable would be undone.

The Texas Hunger Initiative within the Baylor University School of Social Work estimates that more than 4.2 million Texans are at risk of hunger or food insecurity, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. In June 2012, 3.5 million Texans received SNAP assistance.

Interactive: Food Insecurity Rates and the Impact of Food Stamps by Texas County

Jeremy Everett, director of the initiative, said that because many eligible Texans do not participate in federal programs such as SNAP, the state has left up to $6 billion in federal funding on the table annually. As each SNAP dollar has an estimated $1.79 impact on the local economy, The Texas Tribune calculated that the $5.2 billion Texas received from the SNAP over the last year has had a $9.3 billion economic impact. 

Founded in 2009, the initiative works to bring together public and private entities to alleviate hunger in Texas, and it produces research and educational materials to aid existing efforts to address hunger. The organization also helped found a coalition called the Texas Food Policy Roundtable, which brings together more than 100 organizations across Texas to discuss and develop better food policies to propose to the Legislature. 

Here's video and a transcript of the interview with Everett:

TT: Does Texas have a hunger problem?

Everett: Right now we have five and half million people that are food insecure in Texas or at risk of hunger. Unfortunately, one in four children are at risk of hunger. So the problem is very prominent. It’s one of the hidden problems that you don’t expect to see in a state that’s done as well as we have through a very difficult recession. … We’re typically ranked right up there in the highest amount of food insecurity in the country. Right now we’re ranked second; oftentimes we’ve been ranked in the top five in the amount of childhood food insecurity, so we’re very high as a state.

TT: How will the proposal to cut $16.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Program affect Texas?

Everett: Dramatically. Unfortunately, it’s going to directly affect families that we would consider the working poor. Families that are typically making $24,000, $25,000 per household when they have maybe two parents that are working and several kids at home.

TT: What are the problems with partisan approaches to addressing hunger?

Everett: I’ve worked in low income communities in Washington, D.C., in Birmingham, in Waco, in San Antonio, and for the most part, families are experiencing poverty for the same reasons, so it is a systemic issue. But the progressive response has typically been that we need to have a federal response, so we create federal nutrition programs, we create poverty related programs through the federal government to address the issue. What we’re seeing is that as a country, we may not necessarily have a stomach for that. That we as a country are fiercely independent and we prefer a more localized response. On the other side of the coin, our conservatives typically have seen the problem being the fault of people who are poor. That they’re purely making bad decisions or that poverty doesn’t exist at all. And so we know that those two roads aren’t leading us to the place where we want to go as a country, so we really need to come up with a third alternative.

TT: Are government-funded assistance programs a waste of resources?

Everett: In the last several months, almost for the past 18 months or so, we’ve heard a lot about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program particularly and about how there are a lot of fraudulent activities associated with it. We also see that it has a very high percentage of participation right now: Over 45 million Americans are on that program, and people think that is a really negative thing. The reality is that if we didn’t have that program, our recession would have been much more difficult. We forget that the social safety net was established to prevent another Great Depression and the reason we have poverty rates at maybe 15 to 18 percent as a nation rather than upwards of 25 to 50 percent is that social safety net. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do.

TT: How does increasing participation in the SNAP impact local communities?

Everett: Texas traditionally over the past several years left up to $6 billion a year in federal nutrition program resources on the table. That would have huge economic impact on the local community level. Most of those resources are left on the table for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides resources to families that are predominantly working to go and purchase food in the grocery store. … We jokingly call it trickle-up economics, and it’s where you’re investing in the lowest-income community members in your community and they immediately reinvest that money in their local grocery store, which creates working-class jobs. Whenever you have working-class jobs created that necessitates middle-class management jobs, and the money trickles up to the owners of the company

TT: What is the Texas Hunger Initiative doing to keep Texas families fed?

Everett: There are churches and faith-based communities and nonprofits working alongside state agencies and the federal government to try to address this issue in every corner of the state, but what we’ve learned is that they’re so busy trying to address the need that oftentimes we’re sadly duplicating services and we’re unable to address the gaps of service that exist. So the Texas Hunger Initiative was born to try to build community-based collaborations, state-based collaborations, to get all of the different entities working on this issue to address it collectively as one big, giant team. And as a result, we’re seeing a marked improvement in participation rates around the state in public and private programs for particularly children who are missing meals.

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