Last week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack criticized Gov. LePage for refusing to provide Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits – more commonly known as food stamps – to Mainers who are out of work, then not providing meaningful employment and training opportunities to help those Mainers get jobs.

When the Maine Department of Health and Human Services implemented a three-month limit on SNAP benefits for childless adults without jobs, 22 percent of the veterans we serve at Preble Street Veteran Housing Services were subject to this limit.

Other people affected by the rule, even if they are looking for jobs, include unemployed mill workers, fishermen and manual laborers.

As 19 states with strong economies became ineligible for the waiver last year, four others voluntarily followed Maine’s lead in refusing to accept federal benefits despite the fact that they were still eligible because they represent rural areas where job opportunities are limited and where barriers to work, such as transportation and training, are high.

Consequently, on April 1, nearly a million Americans will join the Mainers who have been forced into debilitating hunger because of shortsighted measures that aren’t based on sound economic principles in a state that is among the worst in the nation at making sure families can put supper on their tables.

Not only is Maine third in the country for hunger – people going extended periods without access to food (known as “very low food security”) – but it also ranks 12th for food insecurity, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as “unreliable access to sufficient … affordable, nutritious food.”

As Mainers, we should be ashamed of the growing numbers of kids and seniors with empty stomachs, fewer households eligible for crucial help augmenting their meager budgets, and more and more people lining up at food pantries and soup kitchens.

At Preble Street, we serve 1,200 meals each day at three soup kitchens and provide emergency groceries for up to 200 families each week. But we don’t want to.

Mainers need real solutions that end hunger, not just more hunger relief. We agree with the opinion of the Portland Press Herald editorial board (Our View, Jan. 31) that “just like clean water, public safety and education, making sure that everyone has enough to eat is an obligation of a just society, not something that’s done only when individuals feel generous.” And we launched the Maine Hunger Initiative six years ago to advocate for solutions to hunger that promote self-sufficiency.

A robust economy, livable-wage jobs and expanded access to federal nutrition assistance programs are clear, simple solutions to reverse our dangerous trend toward an epidemic of hunger and its symptoms. Denying SNAP benefits does not make jobs appear or give people the skills and support they need to get back to work. In fact, usually the opposite.

Over and over again, the people we serve credit SNAP with being the temporary support that paved their way to self-sustainability. SNAP is our nation’s first line of defense against hunger, a critical bridge that helps individuals and families re-establish financial stability and move out of poverty.

It’s also a smart investment in Maine’s economic recovery. Every $5 in SNAP benefits generates almost $9 for the local economy. Preventing thousands of Mainers from receiving these federal dollars not only means a loss of almost $40 million annually for businesses across the state, but also results in layoffs and inflated prices.

Furthermore, the new work requirements only add to the administrative load of a Maine government department that ranks dead last in the country for its ability to process SNAP applications within mandated time frames.

Far from being fiscally responsible, these bureaucratic hoops actually cost our state money because Maine tax dollars foot much of the bill for administering the program. While the federal government covers the benefit cost for eligible Mainers, we are draining the state’s coffers to create misguided barriers to food assistance for our neediest residents. The real story of hunger in Maine is the story of families, low-wage workers, people who can’t find jobs, children who skip breakfast because there is no more oatmeal in the cupboard.

We urge the state to reinstate waivers on SNAP work requirements in areas with high unemployment rates, explore other options for exemptions to the three-month time limit on receiving benefits, provide effective employment and training options, follow the federal recommendation to exempt people experiencing homelessness from losing SNAP, and start processing applications in a timely manner.

People’s lives and well-being, and Maine’s economic viability, depend on it.