Cuts to food stamps hit Oregon families hard

Shopping, budgets stressful with less buying assistance

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EUGENE, Ore. — Casey Beason, her boyfriend and 2-year-old daughter were facing an interminable Thanksgiving weekend in their cracker-box apartment on Roosevelt Boulevard while they waited for their Oregon Trail food stamp card to recharge.

Congress let a recession years' food stamp boost expire in November, meaning less money to spend this month for every food stamp recipient in the nation.

In Oregon, it means $84 million less spent on food over the coming year, according to state estimates.

In the Beason's household — Beason, 24, her boyfriend Sean Brenton, 29, and their daughter, 2-year-old Journey — it means the equivalent of $30 less for food per month. And it means missing meals.

In October, Beason had $362 for food; this month, it's down to $332. The allotment, which usually lasts a half a month, lasted a few days less in November, Beason said.

The grocery sacks from her once-a-month shopping trip to WinCo were a little lighter.

"I usually get two bags of lunch meat, and now I can only get one," she said. "I usually get three boxes of juice for (Journey) to last the whole month, and now I can only get one.

"That $30 does make a huge difference," she said.

The federal food stamp program — formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — became a football in Congress's ongoing civil war in the past year. Lawmakers let the recession-time boost expire, which will mean the government spends $5 billion less on food stamps in 2014.

In September, House Republicans voted to cut an additional $40 billion from the food stamp budget, with members saying the program was growing too much and leading too many poor people into depending on the government instead of working.

Opponents of the cuts argued that the recession isn't over for a lot of working people, and about two-thirds of food stamp recipients are elderly, disabled or children -- so they wouldn't be expected to work.

Waiting in the cold

In Springfield on Wednesday, recipients seeking food boxes to get through the month were lining up in 30-degree weather outside the wrought-iron gates at Catholic Community Services at 6:30 a.m. When the gates opened at 8 a.m., staff members handed out food box tickets, redeemable at 11 a.m., to a crowd filling the walkway.

William Herron was second in line. Herron and his wife, Debra, a couple in their late 50s, had been out of food stamps since mid-November. Their usual allotment of $367 a month had dropped to $341.

Debra Herron has diabetes and tries to control her blood sugar with diet, eating things such as lean protein and fresh vegetables, she said. The food stamps are generally used up before the month ends.

"We usually have food the first two weeks," Debra Herron said. "The second two weeks we don't, so that $26 really counted. It really tore us up.

"I tried to stretch even better than I normally do, but truthfully, I'm (already) so tight with my money, I squeak when I walk."

William Herron is a small-engine mechanic who fixes lawmowers, chain saws and leaf blowers — a job that allows him to work eight months of the year and starve for four, he used to joke.

Now it isn't a joke.

He's had a bout with cancer and, in addition to diabetes, she has emphysema and back problems, the couple said. They don't have a car so they rely on public transportation or walking. Their finances are in disarray.

Potatoes are what the Herrons have had to eat for the 1 1/2 weeks since their food stamps petered out, the couple said.

They ate fried potato sandwiches while the bread lasted. After that, he would boil one batch of potatoes and then make "gravy" by rendering another batch down and dosing it with spices.

"You put two forks of flour into hot water, throw it in there and boom, gravy," he said.

Trouble is, Debra's blood sugar measurements are cresting at 180, when she's supposed to keep them under 120 to avoid a host of serious maladies.

"Stress is also involved in that," she said. "It messes with your numbers, too, and we just got an eviction notice because we can't afford our rent this month. We have to be out four days after Christmas."

The Herrons said they'd lived in their rental house for 15 years.

"We don't know what we're going to do," Debra Herron said. "Because we're a cancer family, we don't have good credit. It's in the toilet."

The couple has two grown children, but they're strapped, too, he said. "There's no way we would have them help us. We have to figure it out ourselves," she said.

Catholic Community Service handed out a total 330 food boxes Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, at its two pantries, in Springfield and Eugene.

Debra Herron said she can stretch a food box over three or four days.