November 21, 2012
Vol: 19 No: 47

News

Food banks brace for an influx as Congress prepares to cut food stamps

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

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These days, people who visit the Pike Place Market Food Bank receive a little less food than they did two years ago. Rising food prices are to blame. Manager Kevin Futhy used to purchase 15 dozen eggs for $14. Now he pays $20.

This means clients who used to get 12 eggs now leave with six.

That doesn’t seem like such a dramatic shift, until you consider how the role of food banks has changed.

At one time, food banks supplemented weekly meals for households. Now food banks are the main source of nutrition for many.

“We’re not the stopgap anymore,” Futhy said. “We’re not the safety net. We’re the first line of defense.”

Since the financial crash of 2008, unemployment has risen and wages have gone down. Families who used to donate to food banks are now using them to get by.

It’s about to get worse. The United States Congress is considering cutting SNAP (Supplemental Nutritionial Assisance Program), commonly known as food stamps, by billions of dollars, which could send more people to food banks.

Bills proposed by House and Senate agricultural committees offer no hope. The Senate has proposed cutting food stamp benefits by $4.5 billion over 10 years, which would cut families’ benefits by $90 a month, or about a week’s worth of food.

The House proposal includes the same cuts and also eliminates eligibility for food stamp benefits for 2 million people.

The bill will likely be renewed sometime in 2013, after the dust has settled from the presidential election and the new members of Congress take office in January.

If the proposed cuts are passed, 80,000 families in Washington would lose their benefits entirely, and 234,000 families would lose an average of

$90 a month in monthly benefits, said Christina Wong, public policy manager for Northwest Harvest, a regional food bank supplier.

Even in the best-case scenario, SNAP will likely lose some amount of funding, Wong said.

“With members of both chambers looking to make cuts from SNAP to find savings in the budget, it does not seem likely that SNAP will go unscathed,” Wong said.

SNAP is the one program in the Farm Bill that will get cut without any other offsets to soften the blow, Wong said.

The cuts shift the burden to food banks, which are funded mostly by donations, and are already struggling to meet increased demand.

More than 350 food banks in Washington state serve 700,000 people each month, compared with 500,000 four years ago. The lines grow each year. The Rainier Beach Food Bank served 67,000 during the first six months of 2011, said Sam Osborne, the food bank’s executive director. This year the food bank served 72,000 during the same period.

If politicians in Washington, D.C. cut SNAP further, these families will show up at the food banks earlier and more often.

A study by the Oregon Food Bank found that 56 percent of clients came to food banks in 2011 because they ran out of SNAP benefits, up from 50 percent in 2010. 

Pike Place Market Food Bank hands out groceries to about 500 people during the first week of every month. The last week of the month 700 people show up to receive food.

If SNAP benefits are cut, Futhy said he expects to see clients showing up earlier in the month.

Food banks like the one at Pike Place Market may not have the resources to accommodate greater demand, according to Bread for the World, a nonprofit advocacy organization. The group estimated that every charity and church providing food would need an additional $50,000 to meet the need after the SNAP benefits are cut.

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