By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
If the U.S. Senate passes the Farm Bill today, it could effectively eliminate a benefit the state uses to deliver an average of $60 per month in food stamps to about 175,000 families.
Advocates say the impact will be vast.
“Food banks and other charities in our state already can’t keep up with the skyrocketing need, and they certainly can’t fill the $136 million gap in food aid left by this Farm Bill,” said Julie Zaebst, policy manager for the Coalition Against Hunger.
Lori Weston, director of the Community Food Warehouse in Mercer County, said repeated cuts in benefits are pushing charitable groups to the brink.
In many cases, food pantries are forced to tell people they can only provide emergency aid, but they simply can’t take on any more regular clients, Weston said. “This cut is going to be enormous,” Weston said. “I can’t imagine what’s going to happen.”
The Farm Bill passed by the House last week affects Pennsylvania and other “heat and eat” states. Under the program, anyone who qualifies for energy assistance is assumed to qualify for the shelter deduction and the increase in food stamps that it brings.
In practice, that means the state can leverage as little as $1 in energy assistance per family into added food stamps payments.
Last winter, 795,000 families qualified for heating assistance. So far this winter, 425,000 households have received help with heating bills.
In December, 895,000 families in Pennsylvania were eligible for food stamps.
The Department of Public Welfare has not calculated how many families receiving “heat and eat” benefits only got the nominal $1 in energy assistance and would therefore be most impacted by the Farm Bill’s changes, agency spokesman Eric Kiehl said Friday. The Coalition Against Hunger has estimated that 175,000 families will be affected.
Critics of the program in Congress argue that a family only getting $1 a year in energy assistance doesn’t really need energy assistance, so the state is just playing a fiscal shell game to provide that family more money in food stamps.
The Farm Bill would require states to provide at least $20 in energy assistance per year to a family in order to trigger a boost in food stamps. Complying with that rule would probably drain too much money from the state’s heating aid pot, Kiehl said.
“It appears cost-prohibitive,” Kiehl said.
U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Lycoming County, hailed the Farm Bill for including the first federal reforms to the food stamp program in 18 years.
U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Allegheny County, voted against it, saying its cuts weren’t deep enough.
“While this bill began necessary reforms to agriculture and nutrition programs, in an era of a $17 trillion national debt, more were needed,” Rothfus said.
Zaebst said the Farm Bill, with its “heat and eat” reform, tries to force the hands of state policymakers.
“Pennsylvania cannot afford to run the heat and eat program with the new rules,” Zaebst said. “That was the Congressional intent.”
The average monthly food stamp benefit in Pennsylvania is $128 per month, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The latest cuts would come just two months after the expiration of a food stamp benefit tied to federal stimulus funds. That cut, in November, translated into a $29 a month decrease in aid for a family of three.
Weston, in Mercer County, said that triggered a 10 to 15 percent increase in requests for help from food pantries.
“We saw an immediate reaction after Nov. 1,” Weston said.
John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.
Food Stamp Benefits
Families receiving food stamps — 6,758
Current avg. benefit — $219 a month
Families receiving food stamps — 26,689
Current avg. benefit — $243 a month
Families receiving food stamps — 9,765
Current avg. benefit — $222 a month
Families receiving food stamps — 4,461 a month
Current average benefit — $224 a month
Source: Pa. Department of Public Welfare