Aid groups fear food-stamp cuts

Posted: August 07, 2013

With food-stamp benefits soon to drop and the prospect of an additional $40 billion in cuts to the federal program looming, New Jersey antihunger organizations worry that the need will grow and they won't be able to meet it.

Across the country, food-stamp recipients will see a decrease in benefits Nov. 1, with the expiration of an increase that went into effect in 2009 as part of the federal stimulus.

In New Jersey, where 858,000 people - about one in 10 residents - receive food stamps, a family of three will likely see benefits decrease by $29 a month, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal-leaning think-tank.

Some of that may be compensated for by a cost-of-living increase, but on the horizon are potentially larger cuts: A proposal from House Republicans would cut $40 billion from the program - about half its funding.

The impending reductions, and possibility of more to come, have New Jersey groups calling for action.

"You're talking about gutting a program that is effective and working," Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, said during a conference call with reporters Monday.

Food pantries across the state have seen demand rising - in some cases, doubling - since the recession began, said Diane Riley, director of advocacy for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.

"This is going to be a hit for people," Riley said.

The number of New Jersey residents receiving food stamps has more than doubled since 2007, jumping from 413,000 to 858,000, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective.

As for what will meet the need, Riley said, "The emergency food system cannot keep up with that."

While the stimulus increase will expire Oct. 31, food-stamp recipients will see an annual cost-of-living increase to their benefits Oct. 1, the start of the federal fiscal year, said Nicole Brossoie, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services.

The cost-of-living increase could mean recipients see "no/minimal benefit impact" from the stimulus reduction, Brossoie said in an e-mail.

A cost-of-living increase "could offset some of the negative consequences" of the stimulus provision expiring, said Jon Whiten, deputy director of New Jersey Policy Perspective.

But such increases are granted "to keep up with the cost of living," he said. "The fear are these larger potential cuts. ... There certainly wouldn't be much an annual COLA increase would do if they take $40 billion."

The federal program grew from $33 billion in fiscal 2007 to $78 billion in fiscal 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Residents qualify under guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, based on income and household size. Under current requirements, a family of three's gross income cannot exceed $2,069 a month - 130 percent of the federal poverty level.

Benefits are calculated as a percentage of household net income. The maximum monthly benefit for a family of three is $526. Some people on food stamps receive as little as $16 a month.

"The funding is up in the air right now. And that's scary," said Pamela Collins, chief development officer for Twin Oaks Community Services, which operates pantries in Mount Holly and Berlin.

Demand has been increasing each month at the pantries, where "a majority" of clients also use food stamps, Collins said.

At the Cherry Hill Food Pantry, 139 of the 424 people served in July listed that they also received food stamps, said Shelley Geehr, chairwoman of the Cherry Hill Food and Outreach Council.

"If their food stamps are cut, it means they're going to come up even shorter," Geehr said. "We're certainly worried about it. . . .. I do think we'll get an uptick in people who have not come every month maybe starting to appear more often."

New Jersey officials plan to launch an informational campaign at the end of August, notifying food-stamp recipients of the changes through county welfare offices and community organizations.

In Camden County, Board of Social Services director Shawn Sheekey said he is preparing his staff to field questions about the changes at the front desk and through a call center.

With 34,000 county residents using food stamps, "we expect we're going to get calls," Sheekey said.


Contact Maddie Hanna at 856-779-3232 or mhanna@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @maddiehanna.

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