Protecting the Social Safety Net: Reflections from an Anti-Hunger Policy Lens

This month I had the opportunity, along with over 1,300 participants, to attend the 2017 National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference co-sponsored by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and Feeding America right here in DC.


Given the conference title, you might expect the room to be filled with those working exclusively at anti-hunger organizations and food banks. However, I found that the attendees were as diverse as the workshop topics that initially sparked my interest to begin with.  In addition to the anti-hunger experts, I had the privilege of interacting with other child advocates like myself, anti-poverty advocates, public health and nutrition advocates and staff from all levels of government.


The organizers were quick to point out that, though the conference is consistently well attended, this year’s turnout was exceptionally large. Given threats to crucial safety net programs articulated by the new federal administration, this turnout should really be no surprise. Despite our diverse areas of expertise, we were united then by the conviction that we as a nation should protect and strengthen that safety net. This includes programs specifically addressing hunger such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as well as programs that strengthen the safety net at a broader level such as unemployment insurance and Medicaid.     


As I navigated my way around conference panels, I was struck by the way that anti-hunger work intersected with issue areas that we traditionally keep separate such as immigration and racial justice advocacy. Below are some of my take-aways:


1) Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of the Center for Community Change, grounded his plenary reflections on anti-hunger advocacy from a race equity lens. Speaking on the importance of grassroots organizing, Bhargava emphasized the importance of elevating the  voices of children and families who are specifically threatened by federal cuts to affect policy change because, “without strong federal rules, people of color will be left out.”

  • This warning is especially relevant to  District residents, as 89% of DC households that depend on SNAP benefits to help make ends meet are headed by a black householder.[1] It is no coincidence that programs and policies that support historically marginalized voices are often threatened first by federal cuts; as such we at DC Action are committed to lifting up those voices as we engage in our local advocacy work.


2) Many speakers, including the FRAC’s Executive Director Jim Weill discussed the importance of resisting proposed structural changes federal programs in the form of block grants, because block grants make it difficult for states to respond to unexpected economic downturns or natural disaster situations and also give room for adding limiting eligibility requirements. Though this conference focused specifically on resisting block grants to SNAP, block grants can have similar negative effects on other federal programs such as on Medicaid.

  • Though this is a federal program, we at are committed at the local level to protecting Medicaid in DC from block grants and other threats to Medicaid financing. We’ve elaborated on these threats to health care in our testimony at the Department of Health Care Finance’s performance oversight hearing last week.


3) Hunger does not discriminate based on immigration status. Though hunger is an American issue, and immigrants are woven throughout the fabric of America, many negative stereotypes persist relating to immigrants and use of public benefits. However, green card holders only can qualify for  federal benefits such as SNAP after 5 years, and, once they do, according to panel experts from the National Immigrant Law Center and the National Council of La Raza, these families use fewer federal dollars than do native-born families.  

  • Over 27,000 DC children, representing 23% of all DC children, live in immigrant families. As champions for ensuring that “all DCKIDS count,” regardless of where they or their families are from, we are challenging ourselves to think about who can access certain social programs, who is left out and what the consequences are for children.



[1] ACS S2201 2015 5-Year Food Stamps/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)