Trump budget cuts may affect Bloomington's most vulnerable populations

Hoosier Hills Food Bank is full of ceiling-high stacks of boxes full of tortilla chips, mountains of cereal boxes, piles of canned beef ravioli and baked beans. This warehouse is where the food for many regional charitable organizations in Monroe, Brown, Lawrence, Martin, Orange and Owen counties comes from.

Hoosier Hills served more than 100 agencies last year and distributed almost four and a half million pounds of food.

But next year, this warehouse’s shelves may be emptier. Its staff may be shorter. Its reach will be smaller.

The food bank and many of the agencies that rely on it may lose a vital source of their funding.

President Trump’s “America First” 2018 budget proposal plans to eliminate the Community Development Block Grant program, a $3 billion annual federal grant allocated to communities around the country. The grant allows those communities to serve vulnerable populations. However, the proposal said the grant “is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results.”

Bloomington will allocate a total of $700,000 to various agencies this year, thanks to CDBG.

The 10 agencies in Bloomington that have been approved for it will receive what may be their final year of funding from the grant in June. The directors of several recipient charities say it is going to be difficult to make up for the loss of the grant. The city’s most vulnerable residents will likely be the ones hit hardest by this cut.

“We hope that there’s no way in the world it would pass this way, but we’ve been hoping all kinds of other things that we didn’t think would happen in the last six months,” Vicki Pierce, executive director of Community Kitchen, said of the president’s budget proposal.

The food insecurity rate in Monroe County is 17.8 percent, which is 2.4 percent higher than the national average, according to Feeding America, a non-profit that aims to end hunger in the United States. It’s even higher for children in Monroe County: 20.8 percent.

Food insecurity is a United States Department of Agriculture term that refers to limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

Community Kitchen is one of the organizations currently trying to figure out how it will cope if the budget is passed as written.

In addition to a daily meal service that provides hot meals to those in need, Community Kitchen has a variety of programs that benefit children, which includes ones that keep low-income kids fed throughout the weekends and during the summer, when they don’t have access to school-provided meals.

More than half of the people served by the organization’s various programs are children, Pierce said. The problem is the children’s programs are the most expensive of all the services they provide.

“All of our other programs exist because they’re reaching the most vulnerable populations: children, seniors and people who are chronically ill,” Pierce said of the programs outside of their meal service. “Who do you throw out in that equation? There’s no winner.”

Unfortunately, those are the ones that would be most logical to cut, but they are also the least desirous to cut, Pierce said

Community Kitchen, like many of the other organizations that receive CDBG funding, uses the “social service” portion of its funding to cover staff salaries.

According to Pierce, the CDBG is one of the few grants available that can be used for staff salaries.

“In the grant world, there’s not a whole lot of opportunities for us to just fund our basic operations,” Pierce said. “CDBG funds, being able to use those to offset staff salaries is a big deal for us.”

Without funding from CDBG, many of these organizations will be looking to other parts of their budgets to make up for the losses, and will have to rely more heavily on fundraising. But if the extra dollars don’t come in, they’ll likely have to cut back on staff and programming.

Julio Alonso, the executive director of Hoosier Hills Food Bank, echoed the importance of CDBG in covering salaries. He said that if the budget proposal is approved, Hoosier Hills will be looking at scaling back some of its services.

He said he believes the effects of eliminating CDBG could be worsened by the fact that many of the agencies that rely on Hoosier Hills also receive funding from the grant. This would leave those agencies scrambling to make up for lost funding, putting additional pressure on Hoosier Hills, which would be struggling to maintain its current level of services.

“It could definitely be a double whammy if the cuts go through,” Alonso said.

CDBG funding also goes to Middle Way House, a domestic violence shelter and rape crisis center.

Debra Morrow, the organization’s executive director, said the shelter relies on funds from CDBG to have staff available 24/7. The elimination of the grant could leave them short-staffed during the day to be able to maintain their night staff.

Middle Way House also relies on the “physical improvements” part of the grant to ensure the safety and quality of life of shelter residents. In the past, they have been able to provide baby monitors for the mothers, as well as a new security camera system, which wouldn’t have been possible without the grant.

Morrow said the proposed elimination of CDBG funding would be a huge loss for the community and was critical of the implications that could be caused by Trump’s budget.

“It’s easy to get rid of things that don’t personally affect you,” she said.

Often, she said, emergency shelters such as Middle Way House are the only safe places for victims of domestic violence to stay.

Middle Way House also provides legal advocacy, daycare and preventative programs that teach kids about domestic violence.

“The community deserves to have all of these services, and the community deserves, honestly, to have the services of every organization that’s listed here,” she said, referring to the list of agencies receiving CDBG funding this year.

Middle Way House, like many of the organizations that will receive CDBG funding this year, relies on Hoosier Hills Food Bank to feed its residents.

Pierce said these organizations are vital to Bloomington in particular because the cost of living is so high because of IU’s campus.A single person can’t live in Bloomington on minimum wage without some sort of assistance because students drive up rent prices, she said.

Pierce, Alonso and Morrow all stressed the importance of having a social safety net and making the community a better place.

“One of the things we believe at the kitchen is that just because you are a human being, you should have access to food,” Pierce said.

However, Pierce said she believes even if someone doesn’t believe in the social responsibility aspect, it still makes sense to support these organizations.

Providing people with food keeps them healthy and in their jobs and out of the hospital, she said, where, without insurance, they would be costing taxpayers more money.

“Even if humanity doesn’t motivate you to care about other people, economically, not feeding people is not wise,” Pierce said.

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