Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan: Shine the Light on Hunger

Las Vegas (NM) Mayor Alfonso Ortiz  meets with Rep. Lujan
All five of our elected members of Congress in Washington was invited to address the End Hunger in New Mexico summit on July 17-18. Two factors conspired to prevent elected leaders from making an appearance at the summit: other crucial commitments in Congress and the long commute from our nation's capital back home to New Mexico.  Sen. Tom Udall, Sen. Martin Heinrich, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Rep. Steave Pearce sent comments, which a local aide presented to the summit.  Excerpts from those statements follow at the end of this post.

One our elected officials, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, circled the dates  on his calendar when he first learned about the summit--and was able to juggle his schedule sufficiently not only to present a passionate address, but also to mingle with participants. Some were his constituents in the Third Congressional District, but many (like me) who were constituents of Rep. Lujan Grisham and Rep. Pearce. The issue has been on Rep. Lujan's radar. In September 2013, he sponsored a virtual Town Hall meeting on hunger and poverty in the Third Congressional District.

Here is an account of Rep. Lujan's remarks.

The congressman began his address by pointing out that this year marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and the 51st anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington. The greatest legacy of the two milestone events was that they brought attention to poverty, hunger and related issues, a situation that is very relevant in our times.

"I don't have to remind you of the statistics, but I am going to do anyway," said Rep. Lujan.. "Forty percent of New Mexicans who receive  food assistance are under the age of 18,  seven percent of them are under the age of 5, and  thirteen percent of them are seniors--our grandparents...our parents. This myth that only those who are homeless are hungry is not right--these are our neighbors, or friends with whom we work every day."

Quoting Mother Teresa 
There were also plenty of words of encouragement from Rep. Lujan.. "When I look across the room...I'm reminded by what Mother Teresa said, 'if you can't feed 100 people, then feed one'. That what you're doing. You're braaking the cycle.

Rep. Lujan also acknowledged that he was "preaching to the choir," but urged participants to contribute to shining a light on the problem so that it won't be ignored or swept under the rug. "We need to make sure that this is not kept a secret, not in New Mexico, not anywhere in the world."

"We have to find a way to break the cycle and we have to have the courage to stand up for our convictions and shine a light on the in recognizing that when several choose to keep a secret: that New Mexico's children are struggling, that New Mexico's seniors are struggling."

"In the United States of America, as we were reminded by President Johnson,and we are reminded by Martin Luther King, and we are reminded by the teachings of Mother Teresa, and now Pope Francis: We can't turn a blind eye," said Rep. Lujan. "The personal stories that we hear--share them. As soon as those stories disappear, those hungry children will disappear, those hungry seniors will disappear. Sometimes we'd rather close our eyes and not see what is happening around us. Let's keep our eyes wide open."

A chat with Manuel Casias, Rev. Jack Bunting of St. Felix Pantry
Summer Feeding Programs, SNAP
 "The congressman--whose district includes Santa Fe, Farmington, Gallup, Las Vegas and other communities in northern New Mexico--also commended state and federal officials for expanding the summer lunch program in New Mexico. But also offed this caveat. "I I hope that you all remember that this is not just in the summer that kids are hungry."

The congressman also alluded to the debate on the Farm Bill over the past couple of years, and the controversy over the funding of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  He said the push in the House to cut benefits was a clear example that some people in Congress were putting blinders on their eyes and not seeing the true problem. 

"When people and leaders are suggesting that we should cut programs that feed the most vulnerable, we should hold them accountable," said Rep. Lujan. 

"Our Tea Party colleagues said they wanted to cut this program and they said we want to cut by $20 billion. [Other] colleagues came forward and said $20 billion is not enough, so they came up with $40 billion," the congressman added. "A $40 billion cut that would have devasted this program."

Rep. Lujan lauded Sen. Tom Udall, Sen. Martin Heinrich and the rest of the Senate for proposing and sticking to a much smaller cut ($8.6 billion in the final Farm Bill). "Thank goodness for the Senate did, they were able to push back," said the congressman.

A final word
"We're reminded by Dr. King as well that our lives begin to end when we stop talking about things that matter. This matters. We have a moral obligation. No one anywhere in the world should go hungry. In New Mexico, we're better than that. So thanks everyone here for making a difference in the lives of so many."

Comments from Others in House, Senate
I'm beginning with the prepared comments from Rep. Steve Pearce and Rep. Lujan Grisham because they also had views on the recent SNAP debate. (A coming blog post will incorporate the views of Ellen Teller from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), who was also speaker at the event).

Rep. Lujan Grisham: 'I will continue to fight against cuts in SNAP'
The struggle that New Mexicans face to feed themselves is daunting. The state has the worst rate of child hunger in the country, and the second worst in adult hunger. More than 40,000 New Mexicans, half of whom are children, receive food assistance through SNAP.  But despite the vital role SNAP and other nutrition programs play a role in New Mexicans' food security, several in Congress want to see the program cut...Next Thursday (July 24), the Agriculture Committee will be holding its first hearing on the SNAP program since 2011.  I will use this hearing and every opportunity thereafter to change the minds of my colleagues that wish to make deeper cuts to the program...We need to work together and continue to fight because we share the same goal: eradicating hunger and poverty in our state and in the country.

Rep. Steve Pearce: 'Reform Nutrition Programs to Help Those Who Truly Need Them'
No one should struggle with hunger. We as a nation must work together on addressing this horrific issue...I believe the federal government  does have a role to play in nutrition assistance. The government should be there to  help support the people it serves when they are in times of great need. Our nation should be there to support those through the toughest of times and protect our children, families, seniors and veterans from going hungry. In Congress, we must do all we can to protect this vital lifeline. That is why I support rooting out the fraud and abuse that exists in the system.  We cannot afford to allow individuals to take advantage of this system --doing so takes away from those truly in need and only places greater strains on the system. The federal government alone is not responsible for ending hunger in our state. Local communities, organizations, churches, and the State of New Mexico can all play an important role in solving this critical issue.

Sen. Tom Udall: Championing Initiatives to Help New Mexico
Hunger poses one of the health challenges of our time  Today, close to 50 million Americans live in households that struggle to put food on the table, placing millions of families and children at risk of hunger and poor nutrition. Many many New Mexicans are up against this situation, and we must treat it as a call to action. That is why as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I have championed initiatives to help New Mexico. This includes funding for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program which provides food and adminisrative funds to states so that they can supplement the diets of seniors children, young children and mothers. I have also supported legislation that would allocate $7.7 billion in funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC), and 228.5 million in funding for  TEFAP, which makes USDA food prgrams available through state selected soup kitchens and pantries. As your senator, I will continue to fight for funding for innovative community programs that promise a brighter healthier,more sustainable future for all new Mexicans.

Sen. Martin Heinrich: Food Assistance is Critical to New Mexico Families
Food assistance programs are critical to New Mexico. This is why I voted to approve funding increases for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which benefits 443,000 households in our state...and the Supplemental Progrm for Women infants and children (WIC), which helped 64, 000  low-income women and children under the age of 5 in New Mexico...I know our work is not finished. Last year, over 150,000 children lived in a household that experienced food insecurity in our state..I remain committed to working with you to fight hunger, and I give thanks to the volunteers, faith based organizations, nonprofits and all those people who are here today to create a hunger-free New Mexico.

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