Pantry workers see more hungry people because of federal cuts

12/07/2013 1:43 PM

12/07/2013 1:45 PM

Recent cuts in federal food stamp programs are just over a month old, but North Texas food bank workers say they’re already feeling the pinch.

“Each time I drive up it takes my breath away to see how many people are waiting,” said Rhonda Brown-Crowder, off-site coordinator for Arlington Urban Ministries’ mobile food pantry. “Our numbers jumped by about 100 immediately after the cuts.”

Beginning Nov. 1, the federal government cut $4.5 billion from SNAP, the government’s supplemental nutritional assistance program, also called ood stamps. Soon thereafter many of the 3.5 million Texans who rely on SNAP began lining up at food banks to cover their food shortages.

“They came in from all walks of life; professionally attired people come in during their lunch hour, old people, mothers with children in strollers,” Brown-Crowder said. “They are saying they have to come to people like us to make their awards last from Week 3 to Week 4.”

Some food pantry workers said the crush of new families — and repeat families that have not needed their services for some time — has increased their utilization rates by as much as 25 percent.

Food stamp rolls nationwide have increased from more than 33 million in 2009 to more than 46 million in 2012, according to the Agriculture Department.

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, who visited the North Texas Food Bank last month, said the nation is blessed with enough resources to ensure that no one in the country goes hungry, but that is not what is happening.

“Now food banks in Texas and across the nation are reporting shortages in food and an increase in volume of clients due to these cuts,” Veasey said in an emailed statement. “We should support the core program that helps us feed our most vulnerable neighbors and generates local economic activity for grocers and farmers across the country.”

Holidays, economy come into play

Ron Parish, community ministries director at the Community Enrichment Center in North Richland Hills, said he is not sure the SNAP benefit cuts are the only factor in an increase of people at the food pantry he directs. More people use food pantries in the fall to help feed holiday visitors, Parish said.

There are also other factors to consider, Parish said.

“An economy slow to recover, high unemployment rates along with not enough jobs in our area that pay a living wage all have more impact on food insecurity than a 5 percent reduction in benefits,” Parish said. “We are seeing more people in need because their work hours have been reduced due to the uncertainty of employers than people who have had their SNAP benefits reduced.”

SNAP recipients at the Community Enrichment Center last week voiced different opinions about the impact of the benefit reduction.

“Obviously it does affect me some because I have to come here, but it’s not really affecting me that much,” said Michelle Carter, 26. “The benefits fluctuate so much anyway. It’s tough though, especially when the holidays come around. Holidays mean you have to have a lot of extra food.”

M. Maddox said the cuts came at just the wrong time for her, as her daughter and grand-daughter recently moved into her home in North Richland Hills.

“We really needed them,” Maddox said. “Times are real hard right now and food is expensive.”

The Community Food Bank in Fort Worth felt the crush during Thanksgiving and needed hundreds of last-minute turkeys to meet its demands.

Cuts felt elsewhere

The cuts meant an average $36 reduction in the benefit for a family of four, according to Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based anti-poverty advocacy group.

The $36 cut from SNAP benefits could buy one gallon of milk, one dozen eggs and one pound of ground beef each week, according to a CPPP analysis.

Most families who are receiving SNAP benefits have employed family members in their household, but some are dealing with reduced work hours on top of the benefit reduction, Cooper said. Also, the food stamp cuts have had a ripple effect being felt in other households, Cooper said.

“This was a hidden local stimulus program,” Cooper said. “A lot of people didn’t even realize it was happening. The grocery stores are making less now and cashiers are getting their hours cut because the stimulus is no longer there.”

Chuck DeVore, vice president of policy for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonpartisan research institute, said the utilization increases food pantry workers are experiencing are an initial reaction to the benefit cuts and that the reaction will temper as time passes.

The cuts have returned benefits to their pre-2009 levels and as people adjust to the new reality, food pantry utilization rates will decrease, DeVore said. Continuing the stimulus more than four years after the recession’s end will dissuade people from finding new jobs or working longer hours, dynamics that need to occur if the nation is to regain a more solid economic footing, DeVore said.

“People are resilient,” DeVore said. “At $36 a month, we’re talking about a half a day of labor to make up the difference. I predict that food pantry usage rates will drop in a few months as people work more hours to fill in the gap.”

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752

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