My Turn: Why isn’t food insecurity among governor’s budget priorities?

For the Monitor
Published: 2/18/2021 6:01:32 AM

Last week, Gov. Chris Sununu outlined his proposed budget for fiscal years 2022 and 2023. As I read the transcript, I kept waiting for him to mention the food and nutrition assistance programs that have been so vital to the hundreds of thousands of food-insecure Granite Staters who have weathered all that this pandemic could throw at them.

Reaching the end of Sununu’s speech, I realized that he hadn’t even spoken the word “food,” let alone acknowledged the existence of chronic food insecurity in the state, and the thousands of volunteer hours that people have contributed to hunger prevention efforts this year.

Sununu’s budget does address several areas of critical statewide concern, including education, mental health, and our renewable energy future. His oversight of food security, however, is just that: a miss, a whiff, an air ball – and a bad one. If I were to ask Gov. Sununu about this, I imagine he’d be quick to point out that the country’s two largest state-administered nutrition programs – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) – are both federally funded, and therefore beyond his budgetary control. So too with National School Lunch Program (NSLP) reimbursements.

The New Hampshire Food Bank, which delivered almost 15 million meals during 2020, receives neither state nor federal funding, and was supported last year by a one-time CARES Act payment. If I raised this issue with Sununu, he might argue that demand for this critical service will likely decrease over the next two years as the economy rebounds, rendering any budgetary allocation moot.

These budgetary positions are contestable, but not indefensible. What we should all be contesting is the proposition that existing federal funding is sufficient to meet the food and nutrition needs of Granite Staters experiencing food insecurity.

A state budget that doesn’t prioritize statewide expansion of food access, especially during the biggest public health crisis of the century, is, frankly, outrageous.

One 2019 study estimated the financial burden of adverse health outcomes related to suboptimal diets in the U.S. at over $50 billion. Of course, this number can’t begin to estimate the extent of the range of lived experiences adversely affected by food insecurity, including stress, academic and behavioral challenges, the potential for engagement in risky behaviors, and a host of others. The layered and multidimensional nature of food insecurity demands leadership (including but not limited to the state budget) that addresses the full range of factors affecting New Hampshire residents’ access to food.

What would a budget do-over look like that prioritizes food access? It might:

■Create a council or state-funded position to address the paucity of resident voices in addressing food insecurity. A recent report from the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute is illustrative: Despite providing a comprehensive economic and statistical analysis, the report doesn’t quote the perspective of a single Granite Stater in outlining its findings. It should be obvious to all that identifying specific areas of need – and specific support strategies – should begin with an understanding of the lived experiences of those most affected.

■Immediately fund a healthy incentive pilot program to increase SNAP and WIC participants’ purchasing power for fresh produce. A recent bill moving through the state Legislature (Senate Bill 98) calls for something similar. One survey of SNAP participants called such a program SNAP+, and found widespread support.

■Expand rural transportation services to ensure that those for whom access is a matter of proximity can shop frequently in stores that support a wide range of healthy and cost-effective food options.

■Promote access to food and nutrition education programs across the state, which serve a critical purpose but could realize an expanded role (and expanded impacts) with better funding. Such programs could also help simplify the SNAP or WIC enrollment process for anyone in need, particularly immigrants, unhoused people, and anyone whose primary language is not English.

■Extend funding for those receiving temporary food or monetary assistance during the pandemic to ease the transition back to whatever “new normal” awaits us after COVID.

I do not doubt that many of Gov. Sununu’s budgetary priorities are worthy of prioritization, but I do wonder who could deny that expanded food access should be among them when one in seven New Hampshire residents are food insecure. What I am proposing here is neither radical nor unfeasible, but both urgent and necessary.

How can anyone listen to our governor’s budget priorities and not wonder, “Where’s the beef?”

(Jacob Barton, formerly of Plymouth, is a doctoral student in Learning Sciences and Human Development at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education.)

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