Grijalva, Mass. congressman tour Tucson food bank while working on national hunger program
Working on a “a national effort to end hunger,” a Massachusetts congressmen joined U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva on Wednesday for a tour of a Tucson food bank that has seen the daily demand for assistance double during the pandemic.
U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern and Grijalva toured the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona's main center in Tucson. The East Coast representative said he was gathering information in hopes of launching a plan to end hunger that would involve every department of the Biden administration.
The two Democrats touted the food bank here as a “national model” for combating hunger because of its “holistic” approach. It solves hunger by supporting progress in other areas such as economic security and nutrition education, along with its direct goal of providing food to people, McGovern said.
Hunger has not been a major national priority before, said McGovern, a member of the House Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Nutrition.
“The goal is to provide a volume of information to the Biden administration to do a White House conference on food, nutrition, health and hunger,” he said. “To tie everything together is the hope as well.”
Congressional committees, where bills begin, isolate large problems, McGovern said, and keep them from being discussed as related to problems in economics, transportation, education or other policy areas where there can be problems that contribute to hunger.
“It’s not just talking about one program,” McGovern said. “We’re talking about economic security, energy, utility bills, housing costs and how they affect food insecurity, but in Washington, everything is so siloed.”
The House Rules Committee, on which he also sits, has been holding hearings on hunger affecting college students, elderly populations and tribes to get around jurisdictional barriers which McGovern said he runs into when trying to address hunger in the Nutrition Subcommittee.
Tucson's food bank should be a model, McGovern said, because, in addition to how many people it serves, it has a holistic approach that its CEO, Michael McDonald, said can get around that fragmented approach.
“I think there’s siloing that happens everywhere,” McDonald said. “Everyone thinks they should stay in their own lane, like food banks should only give out food. That’s why we support a minimum wage increase, nutritional health, housing.”
The food bank is a major financial supporter of the Tucson Fight for $15 campaign to increase the minimum wage in the city, because “economic security is food security,” McDonald said.
“We always look at things like housing, food insecurity, economic insecurity as all related,” he said. “Every dollar that someone has for a food budget, they’re stretching it because you have to pay your utilities. It’s hot. People die in Arizona when they don’t pay utilities in the summer.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, lines for food grew because people were already economically or housing insecure, which quickly created food insecurity when jobs were lost and wages were reduced, the head of the Tucson nonprofit said. They included Community Food Bank staff, board members and community partners and government workers who were facing evictions and started getting food boxes to stretch their paychecks.
In previous years, the food bank supplied about 200,000 people each year, but during the pandemic, they saw the daily volume of food donations double to around 1,200-1,500 people per day. McDonald also said “persistent poverty” is a problem in Southern Arizona.
More families now receiving federal food aid
McGovern is urging the Biden administration to find a way to continue the 15 percent boost to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits that has been providing those receiving "food stamps" in Arizona an extra $27 a month since late December. The American Rescue Plan extended those benefits, set to end in June, through September 30.
“I think both Raul and I are strongly supportive of extending the 15 percent increase,” he said. “The average SNAP benefit is $1.40 per person per meal. I left Massachusetts this morning. It was 5:30. I got a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. It was more than $1.40,” he said.
With Congress in August recess, McGovern undertook site visits in Philadelphia and New York City before coming to Tucson to get a first-hand look at the Community Food Bank, which has seen the need for its services grow despite an increase in federal food aid during the pandemic.
There are about 41,440,000 individual SNAP recipients in the country and about 816,000 in Arizona.
About 13 million households in the United States have received SNAP benefits — formerly called "food stamps" — in the past 12 months, which is about 11 percent of the estimated 123 million households in the country, according to U.S. Census data.
Pima County mirrors that 11 percent figure, with 45,898 of the estimated 410,404 households here receiving SNAP. About 32,059 of those SNAP recipients live in the city of Tucson — 15 percent of the 217,993 estimated households in the city.
Hispanic and Latino households are more often receiving such food aid than white households in the country, Pima County and the city of Tucson, according to Census data.
Of the estimated 124,743 Hispanic or Latino households in Pima County, 18 percent of them — 22,572 — have received food benefits over the past 12 months. For white households in the county, 6 percent have — 15,468 households.
At the city level, 20 percent of Hispanic or Latino households have received SNAP benefits in the past year, compared to 9 percent of white households.
Nationwide, 17 percent of Hispanic or Latino households have gotten SNAP help, while 7 percent of white households have.
Grijalva, however, said that SNAP has become important to all households, not just of racial and ethnic minorities, since the start of the pandemic and the 15 percent boost to benefits. It’s no longer the case that the impacted communities are just of color or low-income, he said.
“I think you could have said that prior to the pandemic, comfortably, that the impacted communities are of color and poor,” he said. “I don’t think you can say that as comfortably now. The pandemic created more economic insecurity and a lot of food insecurity for a lot of families that had never gotten in line to get a box before.”
“I think the strict demographic or definition of who’s getting SNAP was true. I think it’s broadened, and that 15 percent boost broadened it even more,” he said.
Grijalva said that he’s in strong support of McGovern’s plan for a White House conference because of how broadly McGovern’s idea approaches the problem of hunger.
“I think this conference, what Jim is talking about, is really smart,” Grijalva said. “It could be a way to begin dealing with this comprehensively.”
McGovern wrote a letter in December to then President-elect Biden urging him to prioritize “our national response to hunger” as the country tries to end the pandemic and rebuild the economy, and to appoint a “hunger czar” to create a national strategy to reduce food insecurity.
Most important to his plan to end hunger, McGovern said Wednesday, is involving a broad coalition of federal agencies including the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy and the Department of Interior, which includes the Department of Indian Affairs, to address wide-ranging causes of hunger like high utilities or rent prices or poor transportation in food deserts.
He wants to involve every department in the administration, but ideally there would also be a point person like a hunger czar, he said.
“In an ideal world, I would like there to be a point person who would work with all the agencies and all the departments to solve this problem,” he said. “But you know what, this White House conference will do that because this is an all-hands-on-deck approach. We want every agency in the administration to be a part of this.”
Although McGovern’s approach to the problem is to include a broad coalition of actors and stakeholders, he said that the bottom line is to finally create a national plan to end hunger.
“If you were to ask President Biden or President Obama or President Bush or President Clinton ‘what is the national plan to end hunger’ — there isn’t one,” he said. “We manage it every year, but there isn’t a national plan to end hunger. So we want a program to end hunger.”
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.