A line of people stretched out into the lobby of the West Seattle Food Bank on a recent Thursday. It was 12:30 p.m., just 30 minutes before the bank was set to close its doors for the day.
A couple dozen families carried cardboard boxes and reusable grocery bags through the line to collect the shallots, pears and pumpkin spice coffee cake that packed the shelves.
José Cueller, 47, of West Seattle, relies on the food bank to keep his pantry filled, and he’ll need it even more this month as he and 1.1 million other Washington residents will receive a lower dollar amount loaded on their EBT cards, often referred as food stamps.
As it is, “What they give you is not much,” said Cueller.
Cueller and other single adults used to get $200 a month in benefits, but the amount is dropped to $189 as of Nov. 1. That’s because stimulus money that was added to the program to help people survive the 2008 economic recession has expired.
More cuts are likely to come for the 47 million people who rely on food stamps. Congress is considering cutting the $75 billion program by as much as $39 billion.
In Washington, 1.1 million people use food stamps, and each of the households is getting their allotment cut by at least 5 percent. A family of four that received $668 per month before Nov. 1 will now receive $632.
Food banks expect they’ll be the first to see the effects.
“We’re a bit of a canary in the coal mine,” said Deborah Squires, spokesperson for Northwest Harvest, a non-profit food bank that serves 360 food banks across Washington.
Hungry families have increasingly relied on food banks to survive since the recession began in 2008. The West Seattle Food Bank tallied about 30,000 visits a year before 2008. Now the food bank gets about 40,000 visits a year.
Food banks, once used for supplemental and emergency food, have become the dietary mainstay for low-income people, say the nonprofit organizations that run them.
The West Seattle Food Bank used to supplement families on food stamps. Now those families get the bulk of their nutrition from the food bank and use their food stamps as a supplement, said Lester Yuh, operations manager.
“This food bank is their primary source for food,” Yuh said.
Any time a federal benefit is cut, food banks pick up the slack, Squires said, because it’s the easiest resource to access.
“It’s very hard to get rent money, very hard to get utility money, but you can usually get food,” she said.
Even so, 14 percent of Americans and nearly 15 percent of Washington residents — more than 300,000 people — went hungry in 2012, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. That’s up from 12 percent in 2002.