David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, worries that too many people are on food stamps, and they are becoming dependent on government handouts.
His solution, posted on his personal Facebook page, is to follow the advice of the National Park Service: "Do not feed the animals."
"Their stated reason for the policy is because the animals will grow dependent on handouts and will not learn to take care of themselves. This ends today's lesson," wrote Fowler, a former Republican state senator from Signal Mountain.
Similar advice has been used by conservative politicians and pundits to criticize the federal food stamp program, known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. Both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have proposed reducing funding for the program, which serves about 46 million Americans.
Fowler's remarks angered Jennifer Bailey, an outreach specialist at Community Food Advocates in Nashville, a nonprofit that helps people get food stamps and works on local problems with hunger.
She said the "don't feed the animals" comparison dehumanizes food stamp recipients.
"It removes the human face of hunger," she said. "No human being is without dignity. That is something that should be remembered."
Bailey said that about 1 in 7 Tennesseans currently receives food stamps, and the face of hunger in the state has changed in recent years.
"It's the people sitting next to you in the church," she said. "Or your grandmother."
Fowler, an influential conservative lobbyist and outspoken Christian, is best known for his vocal opposition to abortion and gay marriage. He disputed claims that his comments compared people to animals. Instead, he said, the point was about the dangers of dependency.
He said that he believes all people should be treated with dignity and that all people are the made in God's image.
"The obvious point of the post is that government can foster and create dependence on government," he said. "... Government creating human dependence on government demeans human dignity and is antithetical to human freedom government is intended to protect."
He said he would be more careful about future Facebook posts.
Rachel Hester, executive director of Room in the Inn's Campus for Human Development, said that Fowler's comments were unfortunate. Room in the End runs a church-based shelter program in the winter and year round programs to assist the homeless, including helping them get food stamps.
She said that the Bible teaches the importance of making sure people who are poor get enough to eat.
"I am supposed to feed my brother and my sister," she said. "When I am hungry, I hope someone will do the same for me."
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