March 04, 2016

Hunger in the Deep South

By Emily Dingmann

In Mississippi, the diabetes rates are so high that there is an epidemic of amputations. In Alabama, a local hospital is starting to write prescriptions for food so that children can get the nutrition they sorely need. Mississippi has the highest rate of food insecurity in the country; one in four children in Alabama do not have enough to eat.

As a Program Officer at MAZON, part of my work is to help identify where hunger is greatest in the U.S., how it is (or is not) being addressed, and what MAZON can do to help create change. And when hunger statistics are this alarming, it’s time to take a closer look. That’s why I traveled to the Deep South, where I sought to understand: Why are so many people hungry in Alabama and Mississippi?

Grocery Sales are Highly Taxed
Alabama and Mississippi are two of only a handful of states that apply a full sales tax to grocery store purchases. In Alabama, groceries are taxed at almost 10%, and legislation to lower the tax has consistently been rejected. The sales tax leaves low-income families paying a high proportion of their food bills on tax, making it even harder to sustain themselves on low-wage jobs.

People are Losing SNAP Benefits
ABAWDs (Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents), a group of low-income working adults, are losing their SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) benefits in 2016 because they have not secured full-time work. About 50,000 people in Mississippi and another 50,000 in Alabama will be cut from SNAP. However, losing SNAP benefits doesn’t mean people stop going hungry; instead, it creates a tidal wave of new clients requesting food from food banks. Not only will this strain food banks that are already under-resourced, but it will penalize people who are still recovering from the Great Recession and have not yet secured full-time employment.

Government Safety Net is Not a Priority
We know that the government safety net is the best tool to end hunger; it reduces food insecurity and generates economic activity. But in both these states, public benefits are often frowned upon, as are advocacy efforts to improve them. Many policymakers see SNAP as a handout, not a solution that helps lifts people out of poverty. Advocates in Alabama and Mississippi must face daunting battles when advocating for SNAP, given that lawmakers are vocal in their opposition and often promote legislation to cut benefits further. 

Making real change in such difficult conditions means addressing the root of the issue through changing policy, fighting for legislation, and finding administrative solutions. When I traveled in Alabama and Mississippi, I met incredible advocates doing just that.

Here are some recent victories in the fight against hunger in the Deep South:

More Free and Reduced Meals are Available to Children
In Mississippi, children are accessing free and reduced meals in greater numbers than ever before. Collaboration between USDA, the Mississippi Department of Education, and local advocates has resulted in increased participation in SFSP, the Summer Food Service Program. Over the past two years, attendance by low-income students at summer feeding sites has increased by 132%, and the number of sites providing food has increased by 141%. Through site activities, speaking opportunities, and other awareness-raising actions, more low-income children than ever are receiving nutritious meals when school is out of session.

Greater Access to SNAP
Due to a recent advocacy victory in Alabama, thousands of people are re-gaining SNAP access. For many years, Alabama was one of only a few states that enforced a lifetime ban on SNAP for people with felony drug convictions. This ban prevented people who have completed their prison terms from accessing the public benefits that can help them get back on their feet. A coalition of legal organizations, advocates, and food providers banded together to combat this ban. The ban was lifted in Alabama’s most recent corrections bill, the result of hard work and thoughtful conversation by the coalition. Now, tens of thousands of people who served their time are now able to access this critical benefit.

While these successes can seem small in the face of so much need, they are major accomplishments in a region where the safety net is at its weakest. Through MAZON’s holistic approach to advocacy, we are helping to support and advance change. I’m proud to be a part of MAZON’s work to support the South in finding long-term solutions that will keep people permanently out of hunger. Because we know we can’t food bank our way out of hunger.