Food security is the primary binding agent that maintains order in society. We need food to survive, and people historically “rise up” when resources are threatened. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA ERS), 33.8 million American households experienced food insecurity in 2022 — 1 in 10 households.

We’ve seen images of civil unrest across the globe when food prices jump and supplies tighten. The same recipe for disaster is slowly brewing in America. Overall grocery prices are up 15% annually, while consumer staples like eggs have skyrocketed 138%.

Low- to middle-income families don’t have the discretionary income to absorb price shocks and often are left with unappealing choices — eat more unhealthy food or simply don’t eat. Either decision comes with unintended consequences that can harm families and communities at-large. The price of fresh fruits and vegetables has risen about 40% since 1980, but the price of processed foods has fallen by the same amount.

Alarming rates of chronic conditions are nutrition related and correlate to food insecurity. More than 40% of U.S. adults and almost 20% of children and adolescents ages 2-19 are obese, according to the CDC. Currently, six in 10 U.S. adults have a chronic condition, many of which are nutrition-related, and four in 10 have more than one, including heart disease, some cancers, stroke, or diabetes.

These conditions are also costly, as evidenced by a 2019 study finding that unhealthy diets accounted for almost 20% ($50 billion) of annual U.S. health care costs from heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Limiting SNAP purchases to healthy options could go a long way to fixing this problem.

The COVID-related increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits is coming to an end March 1 in 32 states, including North Carolina. More than 900,000 North Carolinians will be affected by the change, and many families expected to receive at least $95 less per month, according to the research and policy think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

But some could see an even bigger drop. The average benefit per person per day will drop from $8.12 to $5.45. That means, for example, a family of four will go from receiving more than $970 a month to about $650. That’s a $320 difference.

In 2021, the total cost of the SNAP was around $113 billion. This is a significant increase from the previous year, when the total cost of SNAP amounted to $79.1 billion.

Fiscal hawks can rightfully argue a nation that incurs trillions in budget deficits and faces $31 trillion in debt cannot sustain funding for social programs. It’s a fair, but somewhat misguided debate — the food stamp program accounts for less than 2% of the $5.8 trillion budget.

Only three options exist to balance taxing and spending — higher taxes, entitlement reform, and stronger economic growth. None of those options would be easy or popular. As worried as I am about the debt and the inflation that it causes, I’m more worried about the immediate impact of cutting off food resources to hungry families. And the savings from making these cuts don’t justify the risks and pain involved.

Typically reauthorized about every five years, the most recent farm bill, the $428 billion Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-334), was signed into law in December 2018 and expires on Sept. 30, 2023. The 2023 Farm Bill is estimated to cost $1.295 trillion over 10 years, making it the first ever farm bill to exceed $1 trillion. The political debate will be fierce. But Congress should avoid utilizing the opportunity to score political points against their opponents.

Additionally, we need more faith groups to fill the gap. There should be consensus across communities that hunger is a critical need to be universally addressed. Government can support local non-profits by providing financial assistance for the purchase of fruits and vegetables or a range of healthful foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. 

Lawmakers can also encourage healthy food consumption by prohibiting junk food like soda, candy, and other high-sugar offerings with SNAP. A 2017 New York Times article found that the No. 1 item purchased with SNAP was soda, making up 5% of all purchases. Providing safety-net food assistance should improve the health and well-being of those receiving the benefit, not make it worse.