Food Deserts Get Drier In A SNAP

Some might lament that there aren’t enough hours in a day. The North Texas Food Bank (NTFB) is looking for another week in the month. To make up the potential gap that cuts to the nation’s food stamp program might create, the Dallas, Texas-based organization would have to add another week to each month.

NTFB distributes about 1 million pounds of food in an average week. To supplement cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that went into effect Nov. 1, it would have to add 1.3 million pounds per month.

“That’s like adding a whole week’s supply at a time when the incremental pounds we can go after are the most expensive,” said President and CEO Jan Pruitt. Those incremental pounds come from simply shopping at retail outlets, particularly for protein, which is the most expensive and hardest to distribute.

“If there is a positive side to this story, there is a lot of attention on the need right now,” Pruitt said, with people hearing about the cuts everywhere they turn.

Summer is the toughest season because kids are not in school and demand is at its peak, Pruitt said, one reason why NTFB is facing its lowest inventory in several years.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), often referred to as the federal stimulus package enacted to boost the economy, increased SNAP benefits by almost 14 percent starting in April 2009, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The increase was always expected to be a temporary.

SNAP participants saw an average reduction of 5.5 percent to monthly benefits, starting Nov. 1. For a household of four, the maximum monthly benefit would drop $36, from $668 to $632, compared with a household of one, which would see a reduction of $11, from $200 to $189. Food stamp spending by the federal government would be reduced by $5 billion this year. SNAP costs about $80 billion per year and serves about 47 million people, or about 14 percent of households.

While the temporary boost to the SNAP benefits — which provided $45 billion to the program and increased the average monthly benefit to $130 is officially over, more cuts could be on the way. The House and Senate earlier this year passed different versions of a farm bill that would make additional cuts to the program and committees were expected to go into conference in November to hash out the differences. The Senate version included $4 billion in cuts to the program over 10 years while the House version, which passed with only Republican support, called for cuts of $40 billion.

“The holidays, that’s when the general public thinks of hunger the most. We’re busy, not that demand is so high, but we gear up to handle response,” Pruitt said, adding that 40 percent of their fundraising is done in November and December. “What we raise in November and December takes us well into next year,” she said.

Pruitt expects SNAP cuts to affect some 436,000 people in the food bank’s service area. “What that does to our business, it adds another person to a line at a food pantry that has not diminished since the recession of 2008. What’s happening today is we’re adding to the line at a time when the discussion at food banks is: how do we shorten the line; and, how do we get people out of the line. That’s the real concern for me as a person who heads an organization responsible for providing 65 million nutritious meals this year. That was our goal before these cuts.”

Food banks around the country have experienced increased need since the Great Recession, and while the economy has improved, they have not reported a decrease in need. “The economy is recovering, and continues to recover, but the people at the bottom always feel it last. We see the same levels of need from our agencies as we saw at the height of the recession in 2008,” Pruitt said. “For a significant portion of people in the middle of the economy or above, if you’re in the stock market today, you’re probably feeling pretty good because investments are pretty good. The people we’re talking about, their investment is in their grocery budget for the month. For them, it has not changed since 2008,” she said.

Christina Wong, public policy manager at Northwest Harvest in Seattle, Wash., said they’ve been struggling with an increased need in services since the recession, with longer lines that have continued through the economic recovery. In Washington state, more food has been given out overall than in the past but the amount of food given per person has been dropping since 2010. “The reason we’re giving out more food is we’re seeing more people or we’re having people come back more often than they used to,” Wong said.

Feeding America, headquartered in Chicago, estimates that 1.5 billion meals would be lost under the SNAP cuts in the House farm bill while almost 1.9 billion meals would be lost as a result of stimulus expiring. The combined 3.371 billion meals lost would be more than the 3.309 billion meals projected to be distributed by Feeding America food banks this year. Projections are based on the $4-billion loss in SNAP benefits in the farm bill and $5 billion cuts in stimulus and taking into account its average cost of a meal of $2.67.

Gayle Gifford, president and CEO of the Montana Food Bank Network in Missoula, Mont., said it might take some time, perhaps a month, before they start to see significant increases in need. In the long-term, she’s concerned about the sustainability of providing extra meals to make up for any gaps. “There’s absolutely no way that food pantries can make up that difference,” after a month or two, she said.

“While in economic terms we may be recovering, in household terms that recovery is much, much slower,” Gifford said, as people might be getting back to work but at a slower pace, with fewer hours or less pay.

The Food Bank of New York City launched a dramatic website, www.hungercliff.org, featuring a countdown to Nov. 1 when cuts to SNAP took effect and their impact on communities and urging visitors to contact Congress to stop the cuts.

There are 47.6 million participants in the food stamp program, according to Feeding America, including Washington, D.C. and U.S. territories. Thirteen states have more than 1 million participants, with the largest states being California, 4.1 million; Texas, 3.9 million; Florida, 3.5 million; New York, 3.2 million, and Illinois, 2 million. Those five states account for a total 16.9 million SNAP participants and the top 10 states with the most participants comprise more than half the total, at almost 26 million.

In Montana, 31 of the state’s 56 counties are considered “food deserts,” Gifford said, and they have the added challenges of distribution to rural locations and the increased costs of utilities during rough winters. “There are a lot of elements going on over the next six months that will cause issues at pantries,” she said.  NPT