BENNINGTON -- On Nov. 1, a key funding boost to the food stamps program from the 2009 stimulus package expired, leaving millions of low-income individuals and families to struggle with the repercussions.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as SNAP, or simply "food stamps") enrolls approximately 47.6 million people nationwide. The funding decrease, which will average to about a 5 percent decrease for each person on the program, reflects the expiration of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's boost to the program.
A family of four will see a decrease of about $36 per month. A family of three's benefits will decrease by about $29, according to data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. After the decrease, the average benefits received now sits around $1.40 per meal, per person.
According to Mary Gerisch of the Vermont Workers' Center, who is also involved with the Kitchen Cupboard food pantry in Bennington, about one third of the residents of Bennington participate in the SNAP program, to some degree. One person, she said, had the amount she receives in food stamps reduced to about $8 per month over the last several years.
While programs like the Kitchen Cupboard and Meals on Wheels of Bennington County strive to provide healthy, affordable options to those who are struggling to feed themselves or their families, the demand is quickly outpacing the supply. "We're hearing stories from the community about people who are only taking half their meds to save money for food, not realizing that taking half is just as bad as not taking them at all. So they get sick," said Gerisch, "We've also heard stories about people buying catfood for protein in their diets."
Susan Pratt Fox of Meals on Wheels of Bennington County agreed, noting that donations and state funding were no longer enough to meet the needs of the program. Over the past year, the program took a loss of several dollars per meal served, putting Fox in the difficult position of perhaps having to start turning people away. "Who am I to say, oh, I know that you can't afford it, so here, have some food, and then say to someone else, oh, I think you'll be able to find another way to feed yourself, and turn them away," said Fox.
As for the newest cuts to SNAP funding, there has been an immediate impact, according to Gerisch. Typically, the first Saturday of every month is a slow one at the Kitchen Cupboard, as people have just received their food stamps and don't need as much help as they will at the end of the month, when the SNAP money has run out. Last Saturday, however, the food pantry was as crowded as it usually is at the end of the month. "Everyone was talking about [the decrease in funding]," said Gerisch.
Lawmakers are currently debating a new Farm Bill that could reduce SNAP funding by up to $39 billion over the next 10 years, simultaneously dropping as many as 3 million people from the program, if the Republican-controlled House version of the bill is adopted. The Democrat-controlled Senate has proposed a reduction of $4 billion over the next 10 years. Both of these cuts would be on top of the cuts from the start of this month.
Gerisch stressed that as bad as the situation is now, it is only going to get worse if cuts like this are allowed to go through. At the Kitchen Cupboard on Saturday, she said, she saw a father with his young child, who was jumping around his feet repeating excitedly, "Are we getting food?! Are we getting food?!"
Based on the amount of funding that is available for SNAP and other similar programs, that answer may very soon become, "No."
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB