Food Banks and Food Stamps

June 2, 2020

Charity is wonderful, but it will never replace well-conceived government action.

NPR recently added a provocative piece to “The Salt,” its coverage of food-related issues. This one is about the relative merits of food banks and food stamps.

I urge you to read the whole thing, but it boils down to how food banks are meeting the needs of hungry people in the coronacrisis – or trying to. It’s a huge challenge, not just because need has exploded, with so many out of work. On top of handling demand that sometimes has cars lined up for miles, food banks have to coordinate, package and distribute all manner of food, like liquid milk, that suddenly has become surplus.

The punchline is that there already is a program that distributes food to hungry people far more efficiently than America’s food banks can ever hope to. It’s the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Just giving money to hungry people, and letting them buy food with it in regular stores, turns out to be more effective than a thousand food banks. Not only does SNAP make use of the food supply chain and infrastructure already in place; it sustains them and the people who work in them by increasing business.

But SNAP isn’t likely to become a vehicle for relief of coronacrisis victims, because it’s a political punching bag. Conservative politicians love to propose silly laws banning SNAP benefits from being spent on this or that perceived luxury. Just before the crisis broke, the Trump administration proposed to kick hundreds of thousands of SNAP recipients off the rolls, although it has since backed away from that stance.

As I said, read the whole thing. It’s a good example of why those who say private charity can do the work of a social safety net are kidding themselves – or others.

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