Thousands across area struggle with cuts in food stamps

Bread and pies are distributed at the Feast of Justice food pantry at St. John's Lutheran Church in Mayfair. In Pa., one in seven people gets food stamps.
Bread and pies are distributed at the Feast of Justice food pantry at St. John's Lutheran Church in Mayfair. In Pa., one in seven people gets food stamps. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 02, 2013

It's been a month since food-stamp benefits were cut throughout America for the first time in history.

And though it's too soon for official numbers and analyses, the effect of the loss of nearly $300 million in benefits in Pennsylvania and New Jersey is evident across the region.

"It's mind boggling how the area has so many people this hungry," said Joanne Castagna, director of the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry in Prospect Park, Delaware County. "We've seen an increase in people - maybe 20 percent - coming here because their food stamps have been cut and they didn't know where else to turn."

Down in Camden County, up in Northeast Philadelphia, even in better-off communities such as West Chester, the word is the same: "People are feeling these cuts," said Sister Donna Minster, director of the Department of Children's Services in Camden. "It is significant."

The cuts are "swamping our food cupboard," said Pastor Scott Friedgen-Veitch of Haws Avenue United Methodist Church in Norristown. "And the number of people we serve in our soup kitchen is up 40 percent."

The same problems are unspooling in Bucks County, where even people with jobs are in trouble. "People have been coming into food pantries on their lunch breaks," said Jessie Marushak, director of development with the Bucks County Opportunity Council.

Nearly 70 percent of people receiving food from pantries have jobs that simply don't pay enough to sustain families, she said. "We never saw need like we see now," Marushak added.

Nationwide, the SNAP cuts amounted to $5 billion - the equivalent of 1.9 billion lost meals in fiscal 2014 alone. The cuts were caused by the end of a temporary boost to SNAP to combat the recession. The boost ended Nov. 1, after Congress decided not to sustain it.

Nearly three million people in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have seen their benefits cut by around $29 per month for families of three, and $36 for families of four, according to data from the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. That translates into 21 lost meals per month for families of four.

In Pennsylvania, one in seven residents gets food stamps, now called SNAP benefits (for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), coalition figures show. Of those, 766,000 are children, and nearly 500,000 are seniors or people with disabilities.

In New Jersey, 900,000 residents are on SNAP, federal figures show. That comes out to 1 in 10 New Jerseyans, 415,000 of them children.

"Deep poverty is turning to dead poverty," said Michelle Adderton, 42, laid off from a temporary office job. She lives in West Chester, caring for her son as well as four great-nieces and a great-nephew.

Adderton lost $89 in SNAP benefits as of Nov. 1. Now, the primary form of income she receives for herself and the children is $386 a month in food stamps. She has become a regular at the West Chester Food Cupboard.

"Things are getting more expensive in the stores, and you can't make food stamps last the way they used to," Adderton said. "They run out toward the end of the month."

Research from Drexel University's School of Public Health, as well as from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, bears that out.

Many families find themselves out of benefits before the month ends, creating a chaotic, difficult time within families, when parents often choose not to eat so their children can, Drexel researchers learned.

And even before the SNAP cuts of Nov. 1, the benefits were seen as lacking.

A USDA study released last summer showed that between 2009 and 2011, the maximum SNAP benefit declined by about 7 percent, adjusting for inflation in food prices. That worked out to a reduction of about $47 a month for a family of four.

The SNAP cuts represent "a tremendous loss of purchasing power for households to buy food," said Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, the nation's largest anti-hunger advocacy group. "Demand is being seen in food pantries this month, with need going up, up, up."

What hurts families further are the holidays, Minster said.

Because Thanksgiving and Christmas fall toward the end of November and December, SNAP benefits are already running out. Add to that the loss of free breakfast and lunch for children whose schools are closed, and a supposedly joyous time of year can become more difficult as families scramble to find money for those lost meals, Minster said.

In all, Bucks County will lose $3.8 million in SNAP benefits in fiscal 2013, according to a report on poverty from PCCY (Public Citizens for Children and Youth). In Chester County, it's $2.6 million; in Delware County, $6.6 million; in Montgomery County, $5.2 million; and in Philadelphia, $48 million.

PCCY does not have have figures for New Jersey counties.

With an additional $40 billion in cuts to SNAP over 10 years proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives, things could get worse fast, according to Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition.

"This $5 billion cut was a tutorial for massive cuts that may come," she said. "It's crazy, just crazy."


BY THE NUMBERS

$5B

Amount of food-stamp benefits cut nationwide.

1.9B

Number of meals that will be lost in fiscal 2014.

766,000

Number of children in Pennsylvania who rely on SNAP benefits.

415,000

Number of children in New Jersey receiving SNAP benefits.


alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969

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