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Anti-hunger advocates push for farm bill

Oct. 16, 2013
 
Mandela Barnes
State Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, speaks Wednesday at the Hunger Task Force farm in Franklin. Barnes, who used food stamps for about six months in 2010, when his hours at the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board were reduced, called for Congress to pass a farm bill that funds food programs. / M.L. Johnson/Associated Press

FRANKLIN — The closures of two food pantries have sent a growing number of hungry people through the door at Jeremiah Missionary Baptist Church in Milwaukee, where food service director Audrey Wilson is scrambling to meet the demand.

People have come seeking help as their food stamp benefits have been cut, in some cases to as little as $16 a month. Something is better than nothing, Wilson said, but “with $16, they probably only get milk, bread and eggs.”

Wilson and other anti-hunger advocates gathered Wednesday at a news conference in the Milwaukee suburb of Franklin, where they celebrated a possible end to the partial government shutdown. However, they lamented that Congress still has not passed a farm bill, which historically has funded many food programs. An extension expired Sept. 30, and work on a new bill has languished as lawmakers focused on the 16-day shutdown and a threatened Treasury default.

Senate leaders announced a possible deal to reopen the government Wednesday morning, and Congress was working to approve it by day’s end.

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Hunger Task Force, said that was “great news” because time is running out for people to apply or renew benefits for next month. But, Tussler said, an end to the shutdown isn’t enough because of the uncertainty surrounding the farm bill, which funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The Senate’s version of the bill would cut $400 million per year from the program, while a House bill would cut $4 billion annually.

When the shutdown ends, Tussler said, “We can all go, yay! But at the end of today, if that happens, don’t say yay. Say, what about the farm bill?”

Wilson’s church provided nearly 300 people with food last month, but she said it “wiped us out.” A call for help brought in donations, including a gift of nearly 2,400 pounds of food from Roundy’s Supermarkets. But she said she’s not sure what she’ll do this month — and next — as the hungry keep coming.

An increase in food stamp benefits funded by the federal stimulus package expires at the end of the month. In November, an average family of four will see benefits fall from $668 to $632 a month, about a 5 percent cut.

Democratic Reps. Katrina Shankland and Mandela Barnes spoke in support of a farm bill that adequately funds food programs.

Shankland, of Stevens Point, said she always considered herself lucky to live in an area with many farms that supply fresh fruit and vegetables. But she spent a week last summer living on food stamps and found that $1.50 per meal put most produce out of reach.

“What I found was that I basically had to eat carbs and subsist on that,” she said.

Barnes, who used food stamps for about six months in 2010 when his hours at the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board were cut, said time for action on a farm bill is running short, and was reminded of a sign he saw recently.

“The sign read, ‘At some point, the poor will have nothing to eat but the rich,’” he said.

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