Temporary increase in food stamps expires Friday

bshannon@theolympian.comOctober 30, 2013 

Jennifer Donald, whose family receives money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also known as food stamps, taking a box of taco seasoning from her daughter Jayla, 10, in Philadelphia. Families already buffeted by difficult economic times will see their food stamps benefits drop Nov. 1 as money allocated by the 2009 federal stimulus plan runs out. The average family of four will see benefits drop by $36 a month, a tough hit at a time when child poverty is climbing and Congress is debating a major cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

AP PHOTO/MATT ROURKE

A temporary boost in food aid for poor families expires Friday, meaning a reduction of roughly $10 a month for an individual or $36 for a family of four.

Operators of local food banks are expecting to make up some of the slack as families who receive food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program look for other ways to fill their cupboards.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus, was approved by Congress in 2009 and it put extra money into cash assistance for food. That funding runs out Friday.

Meanwhile, a new fight in Congress over the farm bill — which includes other changes to SNAP benefits in both the House and Senate versions — could add to pressures felt by charities.

In Pierce County, demand is already rising for the Lakewood-based Emergency Food Network, which serves 68 programs, including food banks, meal sites and shelters throughout the county on a roughly $2 million-a -year budget.

“There’s been a little bit of an increase already. People know, ‘I’m going to have less money two weeks from now,’” said Helen McGovern-Pilant, executive director of the network.

Thurston County Food Bank in downtown Olympia also is expecting more traffic and eventually may have to provide about $20 more in food aid per visit.

“The obvious answer is people will come more often” for help, said Robert Coit, executive director for the downtown Olympia distribution center that helps 10,000 to 12,000 individuals every month. “That’s basically what it means. We are estimating that people will come in an extra time a month or two (times). … The real challenge is whether we can sustain that in early 2014.’’

Olympia resident Lance Worth said he and his 12-year-old daughter rely on SNAP benefits. He is unsure how they will make the adjustment.

“Before the cut, it was kind of an assumption you were going to the food bank anyway, because (the food stamp allotment) wasn’t enough. This makes it that much harder,’’ Worth said Tuesday.

Worth said that he and his daughter have sensitivities to certain foods, which makes it a challenge to eat on a tight budget. With a $20 reduction in aid, he said, “I guess I’m just going to go $20 hungrier – aren’t I?”

Statewide about 592,000 families — equal to more than 1 million people — received federal SNAP benefits in August, according to John Camp, administrator for food assistance programs at the state Department of Social and Health Services.

An improving economy has meant a rise in household incomes, which translates into smaller benefits on average, Camp said. The peak average benefit was in March 2011 when the average benefit was $250.

Camp said the average food assistance benefit has been about $235 per month and that shrinks by about $20 on Friday. The maximum benefit under the stimulus has been $668 for a family of four and that drops to $632, Camp said.

But while demand is starting to level off, the number of families applying for help is still at about 43,000 per month.

“The benefits are still very much needed and they are available for households in need. That is one really effective thing about the SNAP or food stamps program. It is extremely sensitive to changes in the economic climate,” Camp said.

Coit said that he is also worried about ongoing negotiations in Congress over a farm bill that could lead to additional reductions, and he called the House approach to cutting $39 billion in cash assistance over 10 years “scary.”

The Pierce County network that assists food banks has already seen a 9 percent increase this year compared with 2012, when the organization’s partner food banks in Pierce County logged more than 1.3 million client visits for food. It distributed about 15.5 million pounds of food last year. Thurston County also is seeing more demand.

Coit and McGovern-Pilant said they can get by in the short term. Both operations have six-month reserves, and Coit said this is the time of year when donations still include fresh produce. Holiday food drives also should help meet food banks’ needs, they said.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com www.theolympian.com/politicsblog

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