“If you’ve got food, you may have a lot of problems. If you’re hungry, you’ve got one problem.”
Alan Briggs, North Carolina Association of Food Banks
Last week, now somewhat famously, Republican N.C. Sen. Ralph Hise inserted a provision into page 114 of the proposed state budget bill kicking 132,900 low-income Tar Heels off the federally financed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Over 51,000 of them are kids.
No hearings were held. Nor was the provision mentioned in debate. All the money, of course, would have come from Washington. Hise explained he was worried some impoverished folks were getting too much. He wanted to make the program fair.
Two years ago, Hise and his buddies acted similarly to stop the feds from providing food support to another 115,000 North Carolinians who met the statutory standards. Earlier this month, Hise also introduced a bill to punish various organizations of state employees. It was pretty clear what they had done to nettle him: The State Employees Association of North Carolina had contributed to one of his opponents. It’s not apparent what poor kids did to him.
Hise represents one of the most impoverished Senate districts in the state. North Carolina has much higher poverty and child poverty rates than the rest of the country. But the 47th Senate district leaves statewide averages in the dust. Thirty percent of children in Madison County are poor. Thirty-one percent of kids in Yancey County are impoverished. The same is true for McDowell. Rutherford County’s child poverty rate is nearly 34 percent. In Hise’s home county, Mitchell, 3 of 10 children are indigent.
Tragically, 26 percent of North Carolina children are classified as food insecure by the federal government. But in Mitchell, McDowell and Rutherford counties, 31 percent of kids don’t get enough to eat. In Yancey, the child hunger rate is even higher. It is one of the enduring mysteries of Southern politics that so many representatives of the very poorest electoral districts are the most fervently opposed to measures designed to mitigate the impacts of poverty. Eastern and western North Carolina have at least this much in common.
MANNA Foodbank, which serves 16 of our western counties, including those in Hise’s district, has strongly opposed the cuts. It cites Department of Health and Human Services studies finding that over a third of the families who will lose food stamps have kids, almost 30 percent include elderly members, and nearly a quarter support people with disabilities. Many of the children affected will also forfeit eligibility for free lunches at school. MANNA and its 222 partner agencies said they can’t plug the gap.
Over 650,000 children in North Carolina are food insecure. The Greensboro-High Point metropolitan statistical area has, several times in the last five years, been found by the federal government to be the hungriest in the United States. Similar studies have pegged Winston-Salem as one of the toughest communities for kids ages 5 and under. The first congressional district in eastern North Carolina has nearly the worst hunger rate among the United States’ entire 436 congressional districts.
Clyde Fitzgerald, director of Second Harvest Food Bank in Winston-Salem, which serves 18 counties in the Triad region, told me that they distributed over 30 million pounds of food to hungry patrons last year, up dramatically from 7 million pounds just six years ago. But, he admitted, “even if we placed all 30 million pounds in Greensboro alone, it wouldn’t meet the need, even there.”
Fitzgerald added: “North Carolina’s hungry aren’t the few begging on the corners. They are the people most of us work with, the people who wait on us, the family that lives across the way.” They could, as easily, he explained, be us or the people we care most about. “I know of nothing,” Fitzgerald said, “more heartbreaking than listening to a mother say she has to decide which of her children will get enough to eat today.”
Alan Briggs, director of the N.C. food bank association, said of fighting hunger: “Our hardest battle, actually, is one of awareness.” To most Tar Heels, hunger is out of sight and out of mind. The people who suffer from intense hunger, he explained, don’t have a platform. “They aren’t part of the mainstream conversation,” he said. “Hunger isn’t there at all; it’s just left out.”
We remain unaware, Briggs said. He thought we preferred it that way. “That’s what keeps me up at night,” he said: an unfolding tragedy we don’t even see.
Hise has the wrong injustice on his mind.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor of law at the University of North Carolina.