Food stamps cut hits families hard in Clark County

Workers at food banks say difficulties, number affected are increasing

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter



Walk & Knock seeks donations, help on Saturday

Tuesday’s newspaper contains a folded paper bag. Your hungry neighbors would love it if you filled it with nonperishable food donations and left it on your doorstep or beside your mailbox by 9 a.m. Saturday.

Since the mid-1980s, the first Saturday in December has been the day of Clark County’s Interservice Walk & Knock food drive. Thousands of volunteers will spread out across Clark County to scoop up food donations and get them to local food pantries via the central Clark County Food Bank.

Canned meats and fish, beans, peanut butter, rice, soup, cereal, elbow macaroni, powdered milk, baby food, diapers and toiletries are all welcome. So are cash donations. All donations stay here in Clark County. No glass, please.

Visit http://www.walkan... to learn more about donating and volunteering. Or call 877-99-KNOCK (877-995-6625).

If you miss Saturday’s pickup, don’t despair. Numerous local businesses — including Les Schwab tire dealerships, Riverview Community Banks locations and fire stations — are hosting donation barrels that you can keep filling through Tuesday, Dec. 9.

— Scott Hewitt

BATTLE GROUND — Nutrition and human development is what Stacy Pfeifer wants to study in school. But here's a more pressing task: the nutrition and development of her three young children, her husband and herself.

On Monday morning, Pfeifer, 32, shepherded her hungry kids through a chilly line and into the tight, busy North County Community Food Bank.

"We use the food bank to help us make it to the end of the month," she said. "By the end of the month, what I can put on the table gets pretty skimpy."

Skimpy has gone skimpier. As of Nov. 1, the Pfeifer family took a cut of $50 in its monthly SNAP benefit — generally known as food stamps. The family of five now gets $420 a month, down from $470. "We got cut big time," Pfeifer said.

More than 47 million Americans rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and every one of them is feeling some form of that cut, which was a scheduled reduction to a recession-driven rise in benefits. The rise began in 2009 and — adjusted for inflation — disappeared again just last month.

Nationwide, the reduction averages to exactly what the Pfiefer family has absorbed: approximately $10 less, per person, per month.

So, no favorites for the kids. No pizza. No desserts. Lots of bread. Lots of pasta. Good thing they love macaroni and cheese, Pfeifer said. Too bad they can't stand beans.

As a nutritionist-to-be — and a mom — Pfeifer is painfully aware that her growing children need more than starches and powdered mixes. But as an unemployed, disabled veteran — who's married to another unemployed, disabled veteran, she said — she's already availing herself of several types of public assistance.

"We are living off loans and grants" while hunting for work, she said. But the temporary government shutdown in mid-October tossed a monkey wrench into that too, she added —delaying military benefits her family was entitled to, including tuition assistance. The family recently relocated from Arizona — to beat the heat and get a fresh start, Pfeifer said — but her plans to take classes are on hold while she undertakes the growing challenge of simple survival.

How far did Pfeifer's reduced Nov. 1 SNAP allotment stretch at the supermarket? "The money went on the first day," she said. "It was gone."

On Monday, each Pfeifer kid emerged from the North County Community Food Bank grasping a special treat to munch during the ride home. "I know you're hurting," she said to one who'd taken a tumble on the sidewalk, "but when you open your food you won't be hurting any more."

Second helpings

Before November was over, many people who'd already picked up one emergency food box at the North County Community Food Bank were returning for second helpings. But that's not how it works. You get one emergency food box per month, according to Executive Director Liz Cerveny. The box contains enough healthy provisions — peanut butter, canned goods, cereal, soups — to feed a family of four for three to five days.

"Clients seem to be coming back before they recognize that they've already asked for their food box for the month," said Cerveny. "I haven't seen that occurring before. What that means to me is people are running out of food earlier than normal."

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 raised maximum food stamps benefits between $24 a month for one person and $80 a month for a family of four; now, the reductions are $11 a month for one person, up to $36 for a family of four. That leaves the maximum available benefit at $189 for an individual and $632 for a family of four.

According to an August analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, this SNAP reduction was expected to be felt by 23 million low-income households; it "will be the equivalent of taking away 21 meals per month for a family of four, or 16 meals for a family of three." The National Grocers' Association issued a summer 2013 position paper expressing concern about restrictions to SNAP.

Nationwide, the reduction totals $5 billion in fiscal 2014 and an additional $6 billion across the two years after that. Washington state's reduction in 2014 is expected to be about $114 million, affecting 1.1 million people, or 16 percent of the state's population.

More cuts are likely. The Republican-dominated U.S. House of Representatives is advocating for a $40 billion cut over the next decade and the Democratic Senate is holding out for $4 billion. An omnibus farming and agriculture package, expected to become law before the end of the year, should include the final SNAP budget.

Hard choices

In Clark County, hunger is growing.

"There's definitely an increase in the number of households we are used to seeing," said Candace Howell, the organizer of the Lewis River Mobile Food Bank, which distributes food at a different north-county site every Sunday. While reliable tallies won't be available for a few weeks, Howell reported seeing a typical — and extreme — increase at the Yacolt site on Nov. 23.

"I know we average about 25 households at each site, but last week in the Yacolt area alone we did 33," she said. "Eight more at just one site. That's a pretty significant increase."

"Is it because of those cuts? We know it is," she said. "People are trying to do everything they can to make their budget stretch."

At least some of those people, she added, are reporting being faced with grim choices: "Do I pay my electric bill or do I buy food?"

Toughest on children

Becky Parker, hunger response program director at Share who runs the weekend backpack program for schoolchildren and their families, said her clientele is rising fast. At the end of October she was sending 1,600 bags a week home to families who need help; by the end of November, the number had risen to almost 1,900.

"That sounds like a lot of kids," she said, but many thousands more could use the help but haven't been selected for the program. The children and families are referred to Share by school staff.

Too often, Parker said, the symptoms of hunger that get someone's attention are problem behavior and lack of focus in class. "We're really there for the students and families who are having the most challenges," she said.

But some families, no matter how hungry, simply won't reach out for help. They "have a lot of pride," she said. "They believe in making it on their own."

The Share backpack program sends food home through 80 local elementary schools, she said, but it doesn't have the resources to keep the supply lines going into middle schools.

"We're definitely feeling it and hearing it from families that just can't make ends meet," she said. "Families with one working parent got their benefits severely slashed. We are really concerned that people who are living on the edge will slide deeper into poverty."