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Spencer Rendahl: SNAP

On the last Saturday afternoon of most months, my 7-year-old daughter and I take a right out of our driveway onto Route 120 in Plainfield and drive 15 miles south to Claremont, one of New Hampshire's less affluent communities.

After parking by the sidewalk, we open a church basement door, and head downstairs.

We say hi to several other soup kitchen volunteers and go to work in the dining area wrapping silverware with napkins, stacking trays, and putting out salt and pepper shakers.

Around 4, the people who have been waiting outside come in for dinner. My daughter and I serve salad and dessert and pass out the wrapped silverware. Sometimes my daughter gets shy and ducks under the table, but other times she’ll say hi to the regulars – especially the group of senior citizens who ask about her latest loose tooth. She’ll sneak an extra helping of dessert to the kids in line in an act of solidarity.

We serve seconds around 4:45 and start cleaning up at 5.

During our volunteer night in June, we served more than 60 meals, a new record.

School was out, so kids weren’t getting served free lunches, and parents faced more pressure to provide food.

One would never guess from spending an afternoon in this soup kitchen that New Hampshire routinely ranks as one of the wealthiest states in the nation. Despite its wealth, though, my state provides few safety-nets for the poor.

Unlike Vermont, for example, we don’t have a progressive income tax or an income-based cap on property taxes. A job loss can lead to painful choices between paying for health insurance, property taxes, a mortgage – and food.

This makes the federal government’s safety nets critical. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program - or SNAP - provides recipients with an average of $134 per month for food. Federal programs like SNAP, free and reduced school lunches, and soup kitchens are like legs of a chair that supports millions of Americans.

But there is currently a movement afoot to slash SNAP benefits, which for decades have been part of the federal Farm Bill. After failing to pass a Farm Bill with big cuts to SNAP, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives passed a bill removing SNAP completely, without offering a separate bill to fund the program. We now risk losing a leg which helps hold up the chair that gives millions a seat at the dinner table.

After my daughter and I vacuum the floor and wipe down the tables, we say goodbye and head home. As we approach our house, we pass a trailer park and then a multi-million dollar estate. In the past, I’ve seen this juxtaposition as a comforting reminder that my town isn’t an economically gated community. I’m glad that my kids have classmates who have both more and less than themselves. But reflecting on that diversity now, I worry about how some of my neighbors will find dinner if our food security chair collapses.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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