Will Congress Let Hunger Hold Women Down?

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As Women’s History Month fades into the rear view mirror, it’s important that we ensure that the stories and heroism of all women be recognized and shared. In the end, there’s nothing more heroic than a mom with very little, able to nurture and convince a child to dream and aspire to heights never before seen. That’s why I find myself focused on Sara Amaya. There’s no need to scour your history books for her name – you won’t find it. Members of the House and Senate don’t know her name either, but they’re about to make decisions that will directly impact Sara Amaya and the countless women just like her.

What you should know about Sara is that she has four children, two in high school and two in elementary school. Her family lives in the Bronx, and to provide for them, Sara works eight-hour shifts at a restaurant, six nights per week. Even so, in one of the highest-cost cities on the planet, she was falling behind on her monthly bills by nearly three hundred dollars every month. She was fortunate to have family members nearby who helped feed her children when her own cupboards were bare, but she was constantly living under the worries of how she would cope in an emergency, and what it would mean for her children’s future if she could not afford to send them to college. It wasn’t until she enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program,that she is now able to both feed her family and catch up on her bills – not one or the other.

I know Sara’s story because she sought out the financial counseling services my organization offers at her children’s school. But she is hardly alone in her struggles. Of the more than 46 million Americans who rely on SNAP to help make ends meet, 80 percent are women and children.

Now these women, already sacrificing and scrambling, face another threat. The budget proposals from the House of Representatives and the Senate threaten to slash SNAP, compounding cuts in effect since November 2013. For New York City residents, those cuts alone have already eliminated more than 56 million meals – more meals than a typical food bank distributes in a year. Since we know that many of those who turn to food pantries and soup kitchens for assistance do so after exhausting their SNAP benefits, the staggering need for emergency food that followed the SNAP cuts should come as little surprise.

But if the economy is humming, as the headlines of late pronounce, isn’t the specter of hunger fading? Not really. Since the depths of the Great Recession, 95 percent of income gains have gone to the top 1 percent of Americans. Wages have barely budged, leaving the working poor as well as the unemployed struggling. Meanwhile, food prices have continued to rise, along with rent, utilities and transportation costs.

At this rate, the “meal gap” – that is, the number of meals missed from households that don’t have consistent, adequate nutrition – shows no sign of shrinking, despite an improving economy. How do we help decrease the gap? We re-stitch the safety net and improve the socioeconomic factors – like better pay and reliable access to affordable and nutritious food—affecting women and families.

This is not just about charity. Ensuring access to an adequate diet for all is an important investment in the country. Food security enables more independence and dignity for women as workers and parents, and better health for the next generation’s workers and parents. Longer term, it means a more able-bodied and productive economy.

As many women can attest, balancing work and family is never easy. But it’s even harder when access to affordable, nutritious food is out of reach. In fact, it’s all but impossible when every day is a struggle to cobble together basic meals.

Hunger is the woman’s problem not being spoken about by enough women. Language of shame often divides women who should be standing and fighting together. Real advancement for and by women will include greater acknowledgement and support of those women who are working hard to provide for their families. Another priority, now that both houses of Congress have unveiled plans for further SNAP cuts, is persuading Congress not just to protect this lifeline but to expand all of our vital nutrition programs.

For too many women, hunger is the thing staring back at them in the mirror or looking back at them in the eyes of their children. Hunger is personal, isolating and very real. There are many ways to celebrate women. However the best way to honor them is by standing in lock step with those facing an oncoming storm and using your voice and influence to help provide necessary shelter.

Margarette Purvis is the CEO of the Food Bank For New York City.

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