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Opinion: Hunger's reach is pervasive on Long Island

Hunger is pervasive on Long Island.

Hunger is pervasive on Long Island. Photo Credit: Tribune Content Agency / Donna Grethen / Donna Grethen

After three years of debate and negotiation, Congress passed -- and President Barack Obama signed -- the Agricultural Act of 2014 this month. The House and Senate finally reached consensus on the farm bill, as it's known, after being unable to pass the original legislation introduced in 2012.

The farm bill is intended to protect our nation's nutritional safety net and help American farmers. But it actually creates a large gap in the safety net for people who need emergency food assistance. The new law reduces benefits from food stamps -- officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- by more than $8 billion.

Though the final bill is an improvement over the $40-billion cut to SNAP initially proposed by House Republicans, it was still -- through changes in the federal "heat and eat" policy used by New York and 14 other states -- set to result in more than 20,000 Long Islanders receiving about $90 less per month. This, after they already saw a cut of $36 in monthly benefits in November, when a boost to SNAP enacted in the 2009 stimulus expired. In total, these Long Islanders would lose more than $1,500 for food this year.

Fortunately for Long Islanders and others in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that the state will preserve the $457 million in SNAP benefits the farm bill would have taken away. The governor appears to recognize hunger's pervasive reach.

The faces of hunger on Long Island have changed dramatically in recent years. Many of our pantries and soup kitchens are seeing more people who, five years after the start of the Great Recession, are still unemployed or underemployed. They're being joined by veterans, seniors, people with disabilities and those trying desperately to hold on to their homes and remain on Long Island.

The stereotype that people receiving food stamps earn less than $22,000 a year is greatly removed from our economic reality. Families earning more than three times that are among working poor people on Long Island. Allowing cuts to the SNAP program would only have resulted in more Long Islanders needing help from food banks and other programs.

The one bright spot in the new farm bill -- in addition to its help for Long Island's farmers -- is a provision of $205 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Emergency Food Assistance Program. This will provide millions of pounds of additional food for regional food banks. It's possible that most food banks will receive close to $1 million in additional food to bolster their inventories. On Long Island, these additional resources will be administered by the Long Island Cares-Harry Chapin Food Bank, and result in more than 3.5 million pounds of additional food for hungry people here over the next year.

Even with the governor's promise, that additional food is needed. Since the initial cuts to SNAP, local pantries have cited an increase of between 10 percent and 25 percent in the number of people seeking help. Food banks across the country that have historically provided emergency food assistance are now providing more ongoing food and supplies, helping families while their assistance levels decrease.

With more than 320,000 Long Islanders -- including 118,000 children -- in need of food assistance, the additional support of the Emergency Food Assistance Program in the farm bill is helpful. But it won't make a substantial dent in the problem.

The economy is still forcing many to make difficult choices. People with limited incomes will continue to struggle on Long Island. We need a comprehensive local plan to break the cycle of poverty and improve conditions for our growing number of working poor people. Filling the gaps left by the latest SNAP cuts is a good place to start.