Developing strategies to end hunger

U.S. Drought Could Leave Hungry People High and Dry

Halved avocados on blue and white plateA severe drought throughout California and other western states has led to lower harvests and higher produce prices. The avocado crop was particularly badly affected — leading to recent news reports suggesting that Chipotle restaurants might stop serving guacamole. However, fans of fast-casual burritos need not panic: according to the company, the avocado issue was merely included on a statement of risks it is required to disclose to investors, and they have no plans to stop serving the popular topping.

But while Chipotle customers might eventually have to pay more for guacamole, low-income families who participate in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) are already making much bigger sacrifices. This past November, nearly all SNAP households suffered a cut in their benefits because parts of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) were allowed to expire. In addition, the farm bill passed last month eliminated “heat and eat,” a provision that allowed states to distribute utility assistance in a way that expanded SNAP eligibility. This decision will cut benefits a second time for many families in the 15 states and the District of Columbia that had chosen “heat and eat.”

Higher food prices and cuts to SNAP affect low-income families more than others. Skipping meals or switching from fruits and vegetables to cheaper foods can have major effects on health and productivity. It’s especially damaging to children, who are almost half of all SNAP participants. In turn, customers’ lessened purchasing power affects retailers and the people they employ.

But changes to federal nutrition and agriculture policies could help soften the blow.

If the benefits lost when the ARRA provisions and “heat and eat” ended were restored, for example, low-income people would have billions of dollars more to spend on food. A more ambitious policy change would be to begin basing benefit levels on the USDA’s “low-cost” food plan instead of the current “thrifty” food plan, which originally represented a minimum consumption level for emergencies. The federal government could also build on its current responses to the drought by funding research and implementation of climate resilience strategies so future harvests are less vulnerable to drought.

Increases in food prices affect everyone, not just Chipotle investors and guacamole fans. While successful harvests will likely always need cooperative weather, adopting intelligent and compassionate policies could prevent droughts, floods, and less extreme “weather events” from leading to hunger.

Stacy Cloyd


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