Written by Dustin Racioppi and Erik Larsen for the Asbury Park Press
With the holiday season just weeks away, the federal government has cut food stamp benefits to an estimated 873,000 New Jerseyans, which social workers fear will lead to a run on area food pantries already buckling under record demands.
Their telephones are ringing off the hook. Perishables and canned goods are leaving the shelves faster than they come in. And the leaders of these organizations are more worried than ever.
“This is not going to be a very festive holiday season,” said Carlos M. Rodriguez, executive director of the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties in Neptune. “The bottom line is, we need help.”
None of the estimated 47 million Americans on food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, will be spared. The decrease in aid is the result of a provision in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that had authorized an increase in individual benefits. It expired on Friday.
The cuts range from as small as a dollar a month to as much as $36 a month for a family of four, according to the Department of Agriculture. According to the Food Action and Research Center, the average recipient will now have just $1.40 to spend per meal — enough for a double cheeseburger at McDonald’s or a pound of drum sticks on sale at ShopRite this week.
“I need a miracle,” answered Carol Latif, executive director of Ocean County Hunger Relief in Toms River, when asked what her organization would do. “We’re really going to need help. We already know there is going to be a stampede into the food pantries. … I need to go after grant money or the super rich for help, because if we can’t get the donations of food, we have to buy it ourselves. … This is really going to be devastating.”SNAP, which benefits one in seven Americans, is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is authorized in a five-year omnibus farm bill covering all agricultural programs.
Nancy Faulkner, an assistant administrator for the Ocean County Board of Social Services, who oversees SNAP, said the reduction in individual food stamp benefits represent a 5.5 percent cut per household.
For example, a single adult who was eligible for the maximum amount of $200 per month in food stamps is now eligible for $189. A family of four who was eligible for the maximum amount of $668 would see their benefits reduced by $36, Faulkner said.
There are roughly 90,000 individuals and families receiving SNAP benefits between Monmouth and Ocean counties, Rodriguez said.
Latif said this change could not come at a more worse time for Jersey Shore residents who depend on the food stamps because they have lost their jobs in an economy still plagued by high unemployment and a regional economy still battered from the impact of superstorm Sandy.
She said she has one family whose benefits have been reduced from $385 to $15 for a variety of eligibility reasons, including the change in food stamp benefits.
“This is really something that the government doing that you wouldn’t have expected them to do right now. It’s going to affect all of the people on assistance and this is some of the most vulnerable people among us,” she said.
And more cuts loom.
House Republicans have proposed $39 billion in reductions over the next decade, citing the programs ballooning costs. The program’s cost has doubled in five years, from $34.6 million in 2008 to a record-high $74.6 million in 2012. Senate Democrats have proposed cutting $4 billion over the next decade.
But demand keeps rising. Ten years ago, 21 million Americans were on food stamps. Today, there are an estimated 47 million enrolled in the program, according to the USDA.The idea of more cuts “is appalling,” said Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition. Of the 873,000 New Jersey residents on food stamps, 364,000 are children and 195,000 are elderly or disabled.
Rodriguez called the cuts that went into effect on Friday “a disaster.”
The FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties is the main supplier to area pantries. Last year, it distributed a record 8.5 million pounds of food, he said. Four months into the new fiscal year, the Foodbank has distributed 3 million pounds of food, on pace to break last year’s record.
With the latest cuts, he said, the FoodBank’s limited resources are stretching thinner.
“Our programs are already expressing their anxieties,” he said. “Their shelves are going bare faster than we’ve experienced.”
That is true at the Manasquan Food Pantry, where several months ago, its staff would fill take-home baskets with varieties of canned vegetables and boxed cereals, like Raisin Bran, Corn Flakes and Cheerios. Now, manager Candice Talleur said, they are down to just cans of mixed vegetables and boxes of Raisin Bran for the roughly 175 baskets they fill each month.
“We definitely expect it to go higher as the cuts start making a difference,” she said.
She may not have to wait long.
Last week, at least five new people signed up for help at the pantry, “which is a lot for us, ”she said. “Usually there’s maybe two a week.”
Contributing: USA Today reporter Doug Stanglin and the Associated Press
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