In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, our neighbors across Montana are struggling against unprecedented hardships. Tens of thousands of Montanans lost their jobs and many more saw their hours cut in just a matter of weeks. An estimated 165,000 Montanans may face hunger in the coming year — a staggering 51% increase in food insecurity.
As workers are laid off and schools remain closed, thousands of Montanans are turning to their local food pantries for help. Across Montana, food pantries, backpack programs and other community providers are working day in and day out to help families keep food on the table. In some areas of the state, including Billings, Livingston, Glasgow, Missoula and Sidney, the need for food has absolutely skyrocketed, with many agencies reporting double — or more — the number of households they typically serve. At Montana Food Bank Network, we are working hard to support our partners across the state, providing a total of 1.6 million meals to local agencies from mid-March to mid-April.
Since this crisis began, we have seen Montana’s food pantries respond in incredible ways, with staff and volunteers stepping up to serve on the front lines, helping to ensure that no one goes without food. However, local resources are being stretched to capacity. We cannot do this work alone. We are struggling to keep up with the growing number of people in need of food, including many who are seeking help for the first time.
The only way to effectively reduce hunger in Montana is through both a strong charitable sector and deep government investment in our federal nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). We cannot expect food banks to shoulder the task of feeding our nation during one of its greatest times of need. SNAP’s ability to reduce food insecurity is unparalleled. In fact, for every meal provided by our nationwide network of food banks, SNAP provides nine.
We urge Congress to boost the maximum SNAP benefit by 15%, which in Montana means an extra $24 per person per month. Not only will these additional benefits help struggling households to keep food on the table, they will also serve as an important economic multiplier. When low-income families receive SNAP benefits to purchase groceries, those dollars are quickly circulated within local economies, stimulating economic growth. SNAP is such an effective stimulus that the Congressional Budget Office rated an increase in SNAP benefits as one of the most cost-effective ways to boost economic growth and create jobs in a weak economy.
In just six weeks, more than 96,000 Montanans filed new unemployment insurance claims. It is painfully clear that we are heading for a severe economic downturn following our current public health emergency. Increasing SNAP benefits will help Montana families, seniors and impacted workers weather this difficult time ahead.
Congress has already passed legislation that includes some much-needed support for food programs. However, they must do more to help our neighbors in need. We call on U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Congressman Greg Gianforte to move quickly to increase SNAP benefits for the duration of the economic recovery. As our communities continue to face extraordinary circumstances, we need extraordinary help. More than ever, this means increasing SNAP benefits for people facing hunger.
Lorianne Burhop is chief policy officer for the Montana Food Bank Network, and writes from Missoula.
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