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Roundtable: Cuts To Food Bank Will Hurt Poor

Federal cuts to USDA hunger-relief programs could be devastating to the San Diego Food Bank and the people it serves, say officials.

Federal cuts to USDA hunger-relief programs, which provide 60% of the food that the San Diego Food Bank delivers annually, could be devastating to the Food Bank and the people it serves, say officials. Food Bank clients are generally the working poor, including 3,000 low-income military personnel and their families.

Michael Smolens, government and politics editor, San Diego Union Tribune

Alisa Barba, editor, Fronteras Desk, NPR

Katie Orr, Metro reporter, KPBS News

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition Roundtable. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. My guests are Michael Smollens, government and politics editor at the San Diego Union Tribune. Alisa barber from the fronteras desk at NPR. And Katie Orr, the metro reporter here at KPBS news. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Katie, the Irving Cushman San Diego food bank says the number of items distributed to people in need, the actual number they're getting is going down, and maybe drastically. Why now?

ORR: Well, a couple of things are going on. First of all, the San Diego food bank serves over 350,000 people a month. And that's up from about 200,000 people per month in 2008. And that's through all of its programs. It has several programs. Its emergency food assistance program has seen a 166% increase in the number of people it sevens over the past five years. And that program, what it does is gives a packet of food to families once a month. For the past few years, a family of four has been getting a packet of about ten food items, boxes of serial, canned goods, things like that, and that was because the USDA had extra money that it got through the federal stimulus package that allowed the food bank to give out more supplies. This month, the stimulus money runs out. So the money, the number of items the family of four will get will drop from four -- I'm sorry, from 10 to 5. In addition, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed an appropriations bill for the agriculture department to oversee the amount of funding they get, and if that bill is approved in the Senate and continues on, the food bank see another 20% hit to its funding. Meaning that would go down to three items a month for a family of four. So they're nervous right now, the food bank is.

CAVANAUGH: So these are two separate cutbacks that the food bank is facing.

ORR: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: One is basically a done deal because the stimulus money has run out?

ORR: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And the other one is not necessarily a done deal yet; is that right?

ORR: No, it's not. It still would have to be approved by the Senate, which is a Democratically controlled Senate. But representative Susan Davis was at the food bank the other day, and I said how big a threat do you think this? And she said oh, that's a legitimate threat. And the people at the food bank are concerned about not seeing the 20% reduction, but even if they saw a 10% reduction, that has really ramifications for people coming to the food bank. And they're worried, if we're talking about three cans of food for a month, these people aren't going to get there, wait in line. I was at an event at Northpark the other day. And you should have seen the line. It stretched down the block for people waiting for their allocations. And they're worried that if the amount of food they get becomes so small that they just woven bother to wait in line for it.

CAVANAUGH: Michael, this is sort of counter intuitive because you would think at a period of hard economic times that making sure that funding for a food bank was maintained. I mean, you would think that that would be one of the things that would be high on every government priority list. But why are there challenges to this now?

SMOLLENS: Well, at every level of government, they're all budget challenged. I've been on the show many times this year about talking about the state budget in particular. And the federal budget is not in good shape. And you've got the Republicans controlling the house. And we'll see what happens in the Senate. But I think we're going to see more cutbacks. And you raise a good point. The when these tough economic times, certainly food services and health welfare, and so forth, tend to get an increase in participation or need, but it comes at a tough economic time for the government as well. So the pressure is on to cut. So it really is this kind of real squeeze going on, and it's unfortunate. Katie had a pretty dramatic image of the long line. I think you could almost visualize that if not an actual line for a lot of social services where people are lining up for these services and even les money there. It's going to be some hard times even if there's this slow recovery. I think we're going to still see things be worse for food banks and other social services before they get better for some time.

CAVANAUGH: Alisa, do you see this as a question of government really not being able to afford this? Or is there a political agenda behind this?


BARBER: Well, I think it's more of an affordability. I don't really know the answer to this, but whether the department of agriculture usually cuts the excess food production. We produce more than we're able to sell. And that excess is usually funneled into food banks and funneled into this kind of a safety net program, cheese, butter, all kinds of stuff. And I'm wondering whether that is the focus of some of these cuts. They get, I believe it's about 60% of their sly comes from the USDA, but other grocery stores will donate food, they have food drives, things like that. But this is the bulk of their supply. And that is why I think it would hurt them so dramatically.

BARBER: I do think Michael was referring to the cuts in many, many other social services, home, healthcare, and community clinics and things like this. I hesitate to say this, but I do think that the food bank, and these food rescue missions will have an easier time in referring some of these donations because I think it's the kind of thing that you put the call out, and you can buy a case of canned beans. People will step up. This is something that everybody can help with as opposed to healthcare and things like that.

ORR: And I think that is a good point. People do tend to rally. One of the things that covering food banks I've heard time and again, of course during the holidays everybody comes out and gives them their food. And that is when they get a lot of their donations for the year. I believe last year, their donations were down because people don't have the money that they would have in other years. So of course their focusing on providing for their families and charity might come second. So they were dealing with a drop in that. Although people still do give. And the other thing that is just surprising, they were saying that places like Carlsbad, where you wouldn't expect people to go hungry just from its reputation, people there, they said the need for food assistance in the North County has sky rocketed as well. So it's affecting all parts of on our community. One of the sadder stories I heard the other day was a woman who takes part -- they have a special program for seniors. And the food bank is required to give them a set allocation of food. They can't reduce that amount of food. So if these cuts go through, they'll have to essentially cut about 1900 people from the program because they can't cut the food. So they have to save money elsewhere. And again, they would have to cut 1900 from that. And this woman was saying before she was part of the program, she would just 1 or 2 days a month just not eat because she just didn't have the money once she paid her bills and gas and her car, food was not an option for her. It just democrats how vital some of these resources are to people.

CAVANAUGH: As we've heard over the years as the number of clients of the food bank has grown, are the clientele has expanded. Who uses the food bank?

ORR: It's a lot of people. A lot of military families use it. A lot of children use the food bank. As I said before, you have people from low income neighborhoods using it, but then you have people in more affluent areas like Carlsbad using the food bank as well. Especially during this recession it seems to stretch across the community.

CAVANAUGH: Let me give out the number one more time. 1-888-895-5727. If you want to join our conversation. And I am going to try this political angle one more time because I think there's something there. Earlier in the year, we heard a great push to stop extending unemployment benefits at a time during high unemployment. Now we hear about a move to cut back on funds for food banks at a time when food banks are being used more than ever before. Now, this is a Republican push, both of those were from the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. And I'm wondering, Michael, what is the politics behind this?

SMOLLENS: Well, you're right. Money is tight for governments, as I said. And we were talking. But you're dealing with Congress, and of course it's political. And there are highways to be made. You mentioned the unemployment situation, and food banks, social services, kind of things, and the Republican house clearly has other priorities, I think. You know, some would argue, could we slice a little off the defense budget? Of course. The Republican majority wouldn't dream of doing that for social services. There's also a growing philosophy of seeing it with Michele Bachmann, that somehow the poor and the needy need to pull themselves up by the boot straps. I haven't walked in those boots. I got to just imagine that. That's very hard to do. But there's this sort of growing philosophy that they -- by sort of pushing them to fend for themselves, they'll do better. Again, it's a philosophy. You can agree with that or not. But that's also coming into play in addition to just the priorities and social services food bank kind of operations have never in at this time broad sense been the Republican priorities upon so we'll see what happens in the Senate. They do have a majority. But the politics of it can -- it's tough to just pull it down on a pure partisan angle.

CAVANAUGH: It is hard for me to figure out the political angle on this. Where does an argument like that get you votes?

BARBER: Well, it's the welfare state. It's the ever expanding government. People who are on the dole. People who depend upon the government and are not working hard enough to take care of themselves. The people who are looking for an easy ride, who if you can figure out that you can get a great big box of food every month, that'll save you 50 bucks at the grocery store. Why not? So whether it be Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann, there's definitely a very strong and compelling argument being made on the Republican side that government needs to be leaner. And that churches, faith based organizations, will step up and take care of the truly needy. That's the argument.

CAVANAUGH: That's what we were talking about. And even the name of the San Diego food bank, which I got wrong, it's the Jacobs Cushman San Diego food bank, means that it does have some really powerful private sponsorship as well.

ORR: Well, yes, and I think that's something they rely on obviously a lot. Two very prominent names in our community stepping forward to support this organization. And they do work with church, with nonprofits to try and get food to people that way. And yeah, it is a cause that a lot of people support. I've been to news conserves where former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was at the food bank. You have athletes thea the food bank. So they do have the benefit of being an institution that a lot of people within San Diego support. But I think they would point out that the need just keeps growing. And you come -- I guess you come to a point where you need more of a krill mass of supplies. And 1 or 2 celebrity visits a year might not necessarily get you there.


SMOLLENS: We all feel good during the holidays by dropping our cans in those bins. And I think you will see corporations, and the philanthropists in town, Jacobs, have been renowned for doing this kind of stuff. And as was mentioned earlier, I think the push is going to go beyond that now. As Alisa mentioned, with food, it is easier for people, for corporations to step in. And you can't do that with welfare and health. But it is difficult. And this notion that they can fill the gap, the government still does provide funding for those provisions. And it will be a tough economic time for individuals and dump companies.

CAVANAUGH: You said that congresswoman Suzanne Davis talked about this. What does she feel about this cutback passing in the Senate.

ORR: She told me she thinks it's a possibility. And that was why she was at the event the other day. I believe it was Thursday. And she was at that event along with the food bank executives really just asking people to call their congressional representatives and insure that it doesn't happen. She obviously is worried that it could go through. And as I mentioned, the food bank sufficient executives are concerned that a 20 ter10% cut would go through which they say will be devastating to them.

CAVANAUGH: Hi Barbara, welcome to the Roundtable. Are you on the line?

NEW SPEAKER: I just wanted to say as a former history teacher, what the Republicans have always stood for, and their philosophy of government is called social Darwinism. And that is the survival of the fittest. And if you're weak, if you're sick, if you have cancer, if you've depleted your bank account because of your illnesses, and you're weak, then you deserve what's happened to you. You haven't saved enough in your lifetime, etc. And so because of that, you have to suffer the consequences and go to the poor house in THE '30s, go to children have who have no parents go to an orphanage. Remember Annie?


NEW SPEAKER: And the comic strip. This philosophy is there today. And it's even worse because in my generation, and I'm 75. In my generation, we respected government. We looked to FDR as our hero. And I wish -- I say where is FDR when we need him now?

CAVANAUGH: Let me get some comment.

NEW SPEAKER: Unfortunately we have a Hoover in the White House at the moment.

CAVANAUGH: Let me get a comment. Thank you Barbara. Thank you for the call. I appreciate it. We're a little bit out of time here. But I think that Republican it is would not necessarily agree with Barbara but would rather say the message is snot survival of the fittest but that government can't do everything. Do you think that that really works with an electorate who's still suffering from the effects of a recession, Alisa?

BARBER: That's a good question. I don't really know. But I think as I said, I think the Republican argument that the private sector is going to have to step up and the more you cut back the more you release a private initiative to create jobs, I think that's their message. And I think that that is compelling.


ORR: I just think one of the challenges of the food bank and other food banks across the country are going to face as this goes forward is that there are a lot of organizations asking people to call their congressional representatives to save the funding. Take public radio. They're expecting that tight is going to happen as well. So maybe there is a -- they could get lost in the shuffle with all these different people putting out these pleas. In the end of the day, something's got to get cut to get a budget. And all these social organizations are hoping they're not the ones that have to face the chopping block.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you all for a good discussion.

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