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Food Bank Connects Local Hunger to National Policy

The September 30 deadline is looming for the U.S. Senate to submit its proposal of a new Farm Bill, which was last updated in 2002 and is typically re-vamped twice a decade. The Farm Bill affects everything from food stamps and farmers’ markets to ethanol production and agricultural subsidies. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed their version of the Farm Bill, which provided for an additional $4.3 billion in spending for the Food Stamp Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program and other programs that help people in danger of going hungry or malnourished.

At Friday’s City Club Missoula forum, Bonnie Buckingham, programs operations manager for the Missoula Food Bank, spoke about the bill and how it affects Missoulians who have “food insecurity,” connecting local food issues with national policy.

In his introduction, Fred Simpson, a board member for the Food Bank, an organization that provides emergency food supplies for those in need regardless of income or housing status, said that about one in eight members of the Missoula community have used Food Bank resources in the last year. “They’re our neighbors, friends, not transients, not just people drifting through our community,” Simpson said.

Buckingham, while not completely satisfied with the House’s version of the bill, said she’d like to see the Senate adopt many of the changes the House has proposed, such as providing more money for Food Stamps. She’s urging citizens to put pressure on their congressional representatives to make the changes in a timely manner, before the current bill expires at the end of the month.

According to the Finding Solutions to Food Insecurity Project, a Missoula-based research project designed to assess hunger issues in Missoula County, the average food stamp recipient in Missoula gets only $94.65 a month in food stamp benefits, or approximately $3 a day. Due to rising housing and fuel costs and essentially stagnant wages, Buckingham said, “food stamps shrink in value each year.”

Another concern of Buckingham’s is the food stamp application process. “The paperwork is lengthy, time-consuming and feels very invasive,” she said. “[The government] needs to streamline the process.”

Beyond food stamps, Buckingham worries about such smaller-scale, community-based programs such as ROOTS, a program run by the Missoula Food Bank by which volunteers deliver “nutritionally balanced” food boxes to low-income seniors in their homes. “ROOTS provides a way for volunteers to interact in a more meaningful way with clients,” Buckingham said. She said that smaller-scale programs such as ROOTS are the “first thing on the chopping block for federal dollars.”

Buckingham also spoke about all the federal subsidies paid to farmers of commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, crops that are used mostly for oils and corn syrups to make cheap, unhealthy food. Buckingham — along with many others such as “Omnivore’s Dilemma” author Michael Pollan — would like to see more subsidies going to farmers of fruits and vegetables, so that they would be more affordable to people of all income levels.

And she’s advocating for the Senate’s new bill to allocate more money to be used at the state level, allowing states to devise more small-scale, local ways to deal with their own community hunger issues. Buckingham points to the success of programs such as Garden City Harvest, Missoula’s own network of community gardens and educational agriculture programs that has been very successful since its inception in 1996, and believes that promoting such programs can be a very effective way of dealing with the paradoxical issues of hunger and obesity.

“When given a choice without cost as a factor [many people] tend to choose healthy food,” Buckingham said.

This month’s City Club Missoula forum was the first held at the Double Tree, its new venue. Check for next month’s discussion topic.

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