At the Farmers to Families event last week at the Augusta Civic Center, 150 cars lined up an hour before the first box of food was given away. By the end, 1,200 boxes of potato and dairy products were distributed, each to a family struggling to put food on the table. And that’s just one event in one small city in one small state.

Around the country, food banks are seeing more and more people come through their doors. When money is tight, food is the first thing to be cut back. The hunger that causes is detrimental to short- and long-term health, particularly in children. How quickly so many people have gotten to that point shows how close families are to falling off a cliff.

It’s an alarm, and it’s going off like crazy.

The coronavirus crisis has eliminated jobs and cut income for millions of Americans, most of whom were barely making it by under the best of conditions. Many have had to seek out food assistance — Feeding America says it has seen a sustained increase of 50% in the use of food banks in its network. They expect the crisis to add 17 million Americans to the ranks of the hungry.

In Maine, Good Shepherd Food Bank says the number of Mainers not getting enough food could climb as high as 250,000, from 180,000 before the pandemic. Since March, the group says, 35% of the people seeking help are doing so for the first time, and they are starting to see people with higher net incomes, both signs of how deep the crisis goes.

And it’s about to get worse. Expanded unemployment and food assistance benefits passed by Congress kept many Americans out of crisis, but those have now lapsed.

Millions of people kept barely afloat by the benefits are now going to sink. They are being left to drown as Senate Republicans refuse to get serious about another coronavirus relief package, as does President Trump, whose executive orders on relief over the weekend are inadequate and difficult to implement.

Unlike the Democratic proposal, the GOP plan doesn’t expand benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP, or food stamps — and it doesn’t extend the Pandemic EBT program, which provided food assistance to households with children who lost out on school meals.

The latter program ran out at the end of June, even though those students are still not back in school, and many will only go back part-time, or not at all, in the fall.

Charity food banks do great work, but even they say they are not enough to keep these families fed. As a result, if nothing is done, children across the country will go without enough healthy food. It’ll be a rough time for them, and their long-term physical and emotional development will suffer.

So will others. In Maine, one-third of SNAP recipients are in the service industry, which is both among the sectors hardest hit during the crisis and the one whose workers are most exposed as economic activity restarts. The jobs are largely low pay and unstable under the best conditions, and now the people who fill them are being abandoned.

Federal food assistance programs are the best defense against hunger. They inject billions of dollars into the economy, and they keep personal setbacks from ballooning into full-on crises of hunger, eviction, extended unemployment and homelessness.

They are needed now, as part of a robust relief package, to keep a bad situation from spiraling into something much worse.


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