Impending cuts to food stamps likely to hit Jeannette families hard
Following a $5 billion cut to the federal food stamp program in November 2013, more Americans started seeking aid from their local food banks.
Before a provision in the 2009 stimulus bill expired, forcing the funding cut, nearly 50 million Americans received food stamps. With another cut looming near, that number is expected to rise significantly over the next 10 years.
“Since November, we're seeing more and more people at each food pantry,” said Jennifer Miller, director of development at the Westmoreland County Food Bank. “We anticipate the food stamp program will be cut by several billion within the next four years alone.”
The Westmoreland County Food Bank currently operates four food pantries in Jeannette. Together, those pantries serve an average of 535 households each month.
“After the first cut, a few of our local pantries ran out of food in the last few months of 2013. More people were coming for aid than we expected,” said Miller. “As we move forward, we're going to need to be able to feed more and more people who might not have been on our rolls before.”
Congressional efforts to pass a new farm bill concluded last week, as President Barack Obama signed the statute that regulates farm production and prices.
The four-year struggle between the House and the Senate ended with a compromise that cuts $8 billion from food stamps over the next 10 years. The result is much less than the proposed $40 billion cut made initially by many Republicans, and is higher than the $4 billion cut Senate members sought.
These changes are expected to affect the amount of donations food banks will need to keep their local pantries in operation.
“Unfortunately what we're experiencing on a state level is that the state food purchase program has flat-lined. Although we're grateful it's not going to stop completely, it's not receiving any increase,” said Miller. “We're experiencing more and more people with less money. With cuts to grant resources and federal funding, we really rely on the community's support to keep our doors open.”
Jeannette's four food pantries are housed at the Salvation Army, First Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church and the Grace United Church of Christ.
“We are still able to provide services in the area. In January, we assisted 164 families in Jeannette, which accounts for 290 people,” said Major Kathleen Waddell, food pantry coordinator at the Jeannette Salvation Army. “However, with those numbers, we saw 10 new families seeking aid. The numbers will rise from here on out, because this is when they're going to start feeling it. They're receiving their cuts.”
Since 2006, the number of Americans receiving food aid from pantries and similar services rose nearly 60 percent. The cuts won't force anyone from the food stamp rolls. However, the deficit could force many Jeannette families to seek supplemental aid and food banks may not always be able to meet their demand.
“Last year, we made a drastic decision to cut back on the amount of food we distributed. It wasn't a huge amount, but it was more than what we wanted to cut,” said Miller. “We were fortunate enough to be able to reinstate those cuts for the current year, due to the generosity of our community members. We're thankful the $40 billion cut didn't go through, but we're still scrambling to figure out how we're going to feed our people.”
As food banks begin to receive food from the USDA, what families see at their local pantries will start to change. What food banks will receive and how much is still unknown.
“If it keeps going the way it's going, we may see several hundred more households on our roster by the end of the year,” said Texie Waddell, director of agency services at the Westmoreland County Food Bank. “We just pray that people will be able to make ends meet.”
First Presbyterian Church food pantry coordinator, Peggy Beach, said she's definitely seen an increase in traffic through her doors.
“The food bank has been really great about coming through for us, but it's difficult for everyone at times,” said Beach. “Every month, I have more people coming in to sign up. In the past few months, my total has risen from 86 families to over 120 families. Some had their food stamps cut so extremely.”
Although Jeannette pantry operators report seeing an increase in numbers around the holidays, it typically declines after the first of the year. But so far, 2014 is different.
“Jeannette is sort of a depressed area. I help a lot of elderly and disabled people,” said Beach. “Every time they cut the food stamps, it forces people to try to get by with what they have. I think this causes a lot of our elderly to not eat properly throughout the month.”
Beach said families once left items behind, allowing other families to benefit from their excess. That is no longer possible in Jeannette.
“They wouldn't take it all. If they couldn't use four cans of something, they'd leave two,” said Beach. “Now, they aren't being so particular. They need it, so they take everything. By the end of the day, my stock is completely depleted.”
Both Westmoreland County Food Bank and Jeannette food pantry coordinators encourage the community to not only increase their monetary and food donations during this time of need, but to contact their legislators regarding the issues in the area.
“This is a bad economy. People are running out of unemployment, and the jobs just aren't there,” said Beach. “We're always looking for volunteers and asking the community for donations. What's unfortunate is that half the people you ask for donations are probably receiving some aid of their own.”
Fundraising used to account for 10 percent of Westmoreland County Food Bank's support. Now, they rely on fundraising to account for more than 60 percent. For every dollar donated, the food bank can purchase $5 worth of food.
For those who want to help, visitwww.westmorelandfoodbank.org for more information about donations, drop-off locations, and how to participate in a virtual food drive.
“Monetary donations go further than food donations, but all are appreciated,” said Miller. “We aren't sure what this next round of cuts is going to do in Jeannette household, but it's not going to be easy, and we'll know when it happens.”
Kaylie Harper is a contributing writer.