Meadville Tribune

August 7, 2013

State's food stamp users to receive fewer dollars

By John Finnerty
Meadville Tribune

HARRISBURG — Needy Pennsylvanians will get less help buying groceries come November due to the expiration of a federal stimulus spending bump that has inflated food stamp payments.

For families of three, the cut will be $29 a month — a total of $319 for November 2013 through September 2014, the remaining months of the fiscal year, according to an analysis completed by a coalition of advocacy groups.

“This is the first time in the history of the program that families will see their (food stamp) benefits drop overnight,” said Julie Zaebst, interim director of the Coalition Against Hunger in Philadelphia.

Benefits for food stamp recipients have not increased since 2009 when the stimulus increase was added, said Anne Bale, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Public Welfare. While the advocate groups have put out the warning about the looming food stamp cuts, the state Welfare Department has not sent any notice to people who receive aid through the program. The Welfare Department is still finalizing calculations about the exact changes in benefits before sending out notices, Bale said.

On top of these across-the-board cuts to the program, the U.S. House of Representatives recently defeated legislation that would have cut $20 billion from SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The House is considering and could vote on even deeper cuts to the program in the coming weeks.

It’s not just an inner-city problem, food bank operators said.

Five of nine rural counties surveyed had food stamp participation rates equal to or higher than the statewide average, government data shows. In Crawford County, nearly 1-in-6 people, or about 14,000 people, get food stamps. In Cambria County, more than 22,000 people receive food stamps, the highest number of all rural counties examined for this story.

The situation could be particularly problematic because many of the people who now turn to food banks are senior citizens who opt not to apply for food stamps, even though they would qualify to get them. If cuts to food stamps force people who now use government aid for groceries to turn to food banks for additional help, that could strain the charities to the breaking point.

Dolores Gens is the director of a food pantry run by the Saint Vincent DePaul Society at Queen of Peace Church in Patton, a borough of 2,000 people in Cambria County. The Patton food pantry serves more than 100 families.

Gens said that much of the pantry’s aid goes to elderly and disabled residents and that her food pantry even began creating diabetic meal plans to meet the needs of the people they serve.

“There is no point in giving them food they can’t eat,” she said. “If they are cutting back (on food stamps), it’s going to be rough.”

Lori Weston, executive director of The Community Food Warehouse in Mercer County, said the organization provides meals to more than 4,000 families in the county. About 17 percent of the people who get meals from the program are elderly. Children account for 32 percent of those getting meals.

The food bank benefits tremendously from community support. A fundraising walk held last weekend raised about $35,000. Just this week, a farmer called to say he wants to donate 5,000 ears of corn.

The upcoming cut in food stamp benefits is the equivalent of taking away 21 meals per month for a family of four or 16 meals for a family of three, said Chris Lilienthal, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

“After paying for rent, medicine and other bills, many of those struggling families have nothing left for food and will likely turn to already overstressed food pantries,” Lilienthal said.

It will be a daunting challenge for food pantries to adjust if the government keeps cutting, Weston said.

“There are those who are saying charity can pick up the slack,” Weston said. “This is going to be a major crisis. It’s a frightening thing.”

Advocates are planning a hunger summit to try to get a better grip on how to help those people who are not being caught by government or charity safety nets, Weston said. Those people include senior citizens, and to a degree that is not widely understood, families of military personnel, Weston said.

The number of people receiving food stamps has steadily increased since the 2002 farm bill expanded eligibility. At that time, the state Welfare Department changed its reporting system and aligned eligibility requirements for food stamps with those used for other welfare programs like Temporary Aid for Needy Families and Medicaid, Bale said.

In 2004, the number of Pennsylvanians getting food stamps topped 1 million for the first time in years. Today, there are 1.8 million Pennsylvanians getting food stamps.

Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.