Food banks across the country, stretched thin in the aftermath of the recession, are bracing for more people coming through their doors in the wake of cuts to the federal food stamp program.
Food stamp benefits to 47 million Americans were cut starting Friday as a temporary boost to the federal program comes to an end without new funding from a deadlocked Congress.
Under the program, known formally as the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, or SNAP, a family of four that gets $668 per month in benefits will find that amount cut by $36.
"It may not sound like a lot but to a person like me, it is," says Annie Crisp, 30, a single mother of two girls in Lancaster, Ohio. "It's not just a number."
She says she received a little less than $550 a month in food stamps and now will receive $497. Crisp, a babysitter who brings home about $830 a month, says the food stamps help her buy her family fresh fruits, vegetables and meat.
Crisp worries now she may end up trying to supplement her family's groceries by going to a food bank or cutting into her electric or gas money for the month. The cut, she says, also means she will have to buy more canned fruits and vegetables, foregoing her daughters' favorite fruit, kiwi, and buying packaged meat.
Food banks served 37 million Americans in 2010, up from 25 million in 2006, according to the most recent numbers from Feeding America, an umbrella organization for 200 food banks nationwide.
"Our network is already overburdened with a a tremendous increase in need," says Maura Daly, a Feeding America spokeswoman.
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, says the cuts will hurt more than 1.8 million Ohioans. "This is taking food off the plate and out of the mouths of our most vulnerable friends and neighbors," she says.
She says seniors, children, people with disabilities and veterans will be among the groups hardest hit by the cuts because they are the groups most reliant on food stamps.
The saving grace, she says, is that the holiday season is approaching in November and December, the time of year when most food banks receive more than half of their donations during the year. The flip side is that more people turn to food banks for help during that time too.
Michael Flood, CEO of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, says the full impact is still too soon to tell, but he says the cuts are immediate, which means that the 656 agencies that run pantries and soup kitchens in his county may start to see more people in the next few weeks. The problem, he says, is that food banks will not have sufficient food to meet a great demand.
He says agencies will do one of two things when their food supply runs low: they will serve a set number of people and cut off the line when they run out of food baskets or they will put less food in the baskets so they can make more of them.
Diana Stanley, CEO of the Lord's Place, which runs job and housing programs for the homeless in West Palm Beach, Fl., says the clients her agency work with do not have any discretionary income. Even the smallest cuts can cause major upheaval in their lives, she says.
"The food stamps help as our families move into independence," she says. "So these cuts are scary for us." She says more than 80% of the 250 people a day the agency works with receive food stamps.
SNAP, which benefits one in seven Americans, is administered by the Department of Agriculture and is authorized in a five-year omnibus farm bill covering all agricultural programs. Congress is currently debating the bill, which has additional cuts to the program totaling up to $40 billion. A cut that size, say advocates, such as Hamler-Fugitt and Flood, would be devastating.