Families, food banks fear food stamp cuts

Pantries likely to see greatly increased need for services

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter


photoAlan Hamilton, executive director of the Clark County Food Bank.

Did you know?

• Washington is considered the 14th-hungriest state in the nation, and one out of four Washington children live in “food insecure” households.

• More than 1 million Washingtonians rely on food stamps (known as the Basic Food program in Washington and nationwide as SNAP).

• In Clark County there were 37,551 SNAP recipients in July.

• The average monthly SNAP benefit is $1.50 per person per meal, or $4.50 per day.

SOURCES: Northwest Harvest, Washington Department of Social and Health Services, Clark County Food Bank

Food pantries in Clark County and across the nation are bracing for a huge uptick in hunger, as a scheduled reduction of food stamps benefits is set to take effect on Nov. 1.

That reduction has been long expected, according to Alan Hamilton, the executive director of the Clark County Food Bank, because it ends a temporary boost in benefits that was added as the Great Recession took hold four years ago.

What wasn't expected until this summer is an additional cut to food stamps that's likely to be somewhere between $4 billion and $40 billion nationwide. The House of Representatives recently passed a $40 billion cut, and the Senate previously approved a $4 billion cut. When (and if) Congress and the president emerge from the current budget stalemate that's put the government into partial-shutdown mode, the final negotiated cut to food stamps is expected to be somewhere in between.

Food stamps — the real name is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — cost approximately $80 billion per year and typically represent the lion's share of a broader agriculture and farming subsidy law. Republicans have complained that the program is too big and expensive; Democrats have objected that cutting it means extending the hunger of people who are already hungry.

The typical food stamp benefit is $1.50 per person per meal, or $4.50 per day. In Washington state, just over 1 million people rely on food stamps. In Clark County, there were 37,551 food stamp recipients in July, according to John Camp, an administrator at the Department of Social and Health Services. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 47 million Americans — one out of seven — rely on food stamps.

Even the smallest expected cut to the program — $4 billion nationwide — would result in 232,000 Washington households losing $90 a month in food assistance, according to Northwest Harvest, a statewide food bank network. If the large House of Representatives' cut — $40 billion nationwide — was to become law, that would eliminate much more, including all benefits for 124,000 single Washington adults who aren't raising children. And it would mean as many as 24,000 children would lose eligibility for free school meals.

Between those potential cuts and the expected one he was already counting on, Hamilton said his worst-case scenario is a doubling of total need, with benefits drying up much sooner each month and hungry families lining up at local food pantries as never before.

"We could be facing up to twice the want," Hamilton said. "What SNAP provides is so significant, this does feel like a pending emergency. Every time the players in the local food system get together, the No. 1 topic is the much greater need we are about to see. This could get really bad."

There's no obvious answer, he added. The Clark County Food Bank is the central distributor to a network of approximately 30 smaller food pantries in Clark County, and its spacious new warehouse has tremendously increased its capacity to accept, store and ship food — but new need may be about to leapfrog all that, Hamilton said.

In recent years the Clark County Food Bank has also emphasized educational outreach programs that teach people about nutrition and healthy cooking — how to stay away from junk and provide your family with good meals for just a few dollars a day — but the small size and gradual nature of those programs won't be able to backstop huge and sudden reductions in overall benefits, Hamilton said.

Hamilton pointed out that food banks and pantries are in the unenviable position of providing an essential resource that vanishes immediately — so they always need a steady stream of more. That's different than sister nonprofits that deliver services such as housing, health care or job training, for example.

"Food just disappears and it's gone. Hunger hits quicker" than any other human need, he said. When SNAP benefits shrink, he said, he expects to see the need pile up "pretty fast."

Scheduled cut

In 2009, the recession-fighting American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — what was called the stimulus — included a 13.6 percent temporary increase in federal SNAP benefits. That was intended to keep dollars circulating and help families survive a rising tide of layoffs and foreclosures.

Hunger in America remains at or near record levels, according to the USDA, and there are more food stamp recipients than ever before — but the boost to SNAP will end on Nov. 1.

According to a Sept. 12 memo from the state Department of Social and Health Services, that will mean "a benefit cut for nearly 600,000 households in Washington State." That includes not only cuts to SNAP itself — the Washington state program is called Basic Food — but also to a state-funded Food Assistance Program for legal immigrants that's keyed to SNAP benefits. FAP beneficiaries get 75 percent of what SNAP recipients get, so their benefits will be reduced accordingly.

According to the memo, a typical state family of four that used to get $668 a month in SNAP benefits will now get $632. That's a drop of $43 per month, or $396 per year. For a family of three, the benefit drops from $526 to $497 per month, a drop of $29 per month or $319 per year. For a single person, the benefit shrinks from $200 to $189 per month, a reduction of $11 per month or $121 per year.

Other factors may also affect people's actual benefits, including household income and living expenses. Program details are available at http://www.foodhelp.wa.gov/basic_food.htm. The basic rule is that you qualify if your income is no more than twice the federal poverty level.

In Washington state, the monthly income limit to qualify Basic Food is approximately $3,926 per month for a family of four. For a family of three it's $3,256, and for a single person it's $1,916.

According to the Basic Food website, rules govern what you can and can't buy with these benefits. Fresh groceries, meat, dairy and other nonprepared foods are OK, as are seeds to grow your own food; hot food, restaurant meals, household supplies, alcohol and tobacco are not. Food stamps cannot be exchanged for cash.

Likely more

The sunset of temporarily bolstered SNAP benefits was expected. Not expected was the likely additional reduction of SNAP benefits in the latest federal budget — whenever it materializes and however big it may be.

The votes to cut these benefits were mostly along party lines, with Republicans seeking cuts and Democrats resisting; no Democrat voted for the umbrella House farm bill that includes the large cut. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, was not present for the House vote because she was with her severely disabled newborn child, according to her office.

"Whatever happens, we know that on Nov. 1 people will get reduced and that will result in more trips to more food pantries," Hamilton said. He added that the effects of the cut will be more misery and less cash circulating in the economy overall, as needy people are forced to make ever more painful spending decisions.

"Maybe electric bills will take the brunt of this, as people decide they've got to eat," Hamilton. "Maybe it's winter clothes, or housing, or a doctor visit. Where do people make up the benefits that they're losing?"

SNAP Challenge

To bring this point home to Clark County people who don't need food stamps, Hamilton and the Food Bank are soon to announce their second annual SNAP Challenge. That's a weeklong exercise in living on SNAP benefits. Last year the Food Bank did a trial run, with staff and just a few stakeholders giving it a try — one young couple, Audrey and Connor Williams, were profiled in The Columbian — but this year the SNAP Challenge should be a lot bigger, Hamilton said.

The SNAP Challenge will be held during National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week, Nov. 16-24. More information about participating in it will appear in The Columbian.

Promoting understanding and compassion for other people's predicaments is an important function of the food bank, Hamilton said — but it won't solve anything short term.

"People can't eat compassion," he said.