POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Reduction to SNAP Benefits Worries NJ Food Bank Workers

By Michelle Sartor Lang
Senior Multimedia Web Producer

Evelyn Ibarra, a Food Stamp Outreach Coordinator at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, helps a woman determine possible eligibility for SNAP benefits. Photo courtesy of Community FoodBank of New Jersey.

Those who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, will see a decrease in their assistance come Nov. 1. The reduction in benefits comes because a 2009 law temporarily increasing SNAP benefits during the recession has run out. The cut comes right before the holiday season and those involved in food banks and food pantries in New Jersey believe it will be devastating for those in the state who need the help.

The most recent data available for New Jersey from the Division of Family Development shows that in July, there were 428,181 households receiving NJ SNAP benefits, an increase of 5.3 percent since July 2012. A total of 863,642 New Jerseyans received SNAP benefits in July, an increase of 5.8 percent since July 2012. Ocean, Salem and Mercer counties saw the highest increases in participants from July 2012 to July 2013.

The decrease that takes effect in November is based upon the number of people in the household. For example, a single individual can receive a maximum of $200 per month through SNAP. Come Nov. 1, this will drop to $189, a reduction of $11. For a family of four, the maximum benefit is $668 per month, which will drop $36 to $632.

Although some might think the decrease is minor, Community FoodBank of New Jersey Director of Advocacy Diane Riley explained that for individuals that are living on such a tight budget, the reduction could mean a couple bags of groceries per month, which can be significant. She said many people who use SNAP will have to turn to food banks more often.

“Oftentimes, we’re the only place people can turn. And we’re here to provide some food, but we were never meant to be sustaining people. We were meant to be emergency,” Riley said. “And now what you have here, the government pulling some of their very important partnership in helping to feed those who are struggling to put food on the table. The charitable system can’t make up such a loss of that.”

Executive Director of the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties Carlos Rodriguez agrees. He said families often run out of SNAP funds by the third week of the month at the current levels. “To put it bluntly, we can’t come in and make up $90 million across the state. We just can’t,” he said. “We’ve increased our distribution and continue to increase our distribution to meet the current need without these cuts. So this is just going to put an undo pressure on families and the community.”

Individuals and families living in areas that were hard hit by Hurricane Sandy are even more greatly impacted by the cuts, according to Rodriguez. “We’re just not ready to absorb this because the economy is still trying to get back on its feet,” he said.

Volunteers sort food at the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. Directors worry that more individuals will be turning to food banks for help when the SNAP reduction goes into effect Nov. 1. Photo courtesy of the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties.

Rodriguez explained that every $5 that comes from the SNAP program generates $9 of economic activity. “So without $90, you multiply that, that’s that much less economic activity happening in our communities,” he said.

Long-term, those who work with food banks say nutrition will suffer with SNAP decreases as people look to cheaper, less nutritious options to make ends meet. Those struggling to get food on the table often have to choose among paying rent, heating their homes, buying medicine and eating.

While it’s never a good time to make cuts to a program like SNAP, this reduction comes right before the holiday season, which makes its impact even worse. While Rodriguez said food struggles happen year round, there is increased anxiety during the holiday season. “During a time when we’re supposed to be celebrating in a way that involves food more often than not, families are gonna be struggling just to meet the basic needs,” he said.

The latest cuts come after the sequestration and the partial government shutdown. Food bank directors are worried about what federal lawmakers are going to do with the Farm Bill, which controls the budget and requirements for SNAP. The Senate has proposed cutting $4 billion over 10 years, but the House has proposed cuts totaling $39 billion in the next decade.

“They’re really far apart on their idea for this program that needs to be reauthorized now. Both of those would be further devastating, but as you can imagine, the $40 billion cut would be ridiculous. It’s pretty much gutting the program,” Riley said. “And that would certainly impact us dramatically. And really can’t be allowed.”

Rodriguez called the proposed cuts to the Farm Bill unimaginable. He hopes legislators continue their support for nutrition programs and encourages them to visit their local food banks and pantries to see firsthand the impact cuts would have on their constituents.

Riley said in the time she has worked in food assistance — nearly a decade — she hasn’t seen the current willingness to cut nutrition programs and feels like there’s a war being waged against them. “There used to be a lot of bipartisan understanding of the need to feed people,” she said. “And that just doesn’t seem to be happening.”

Part of the problem could be because of misinformation about SNAP, which Riley said is the cornerstone of nutrition assistance in the U.S. She said it’s a very efficient program that isn’t easy to get approval for and is meant to help people who are transitioning. Most recipients use SNAP benefits for about 10 months, according to Riley, though she said it could be slightly longer during times of high unemployment.

Riley said she has encountered many people who cite food stamps as being extremely helpful during difficult times in their lives. “These are people who are working and thriving members of their community. They really cite that as such a great benefit at a time when they really, really needed it,” she said.

The Nov. 1 cuts are inevitable, but Rodriguez said the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties has been working with families to get them ready for the change. The first step has been communication, making sure families knew that the reduction was coming. He explained that they also encouraged families to look at their SNAP case to see if there are other ways to increase their benefits. He said families should make sure they are claiming all medical deductions allowed for elderly and disabled members of the household and report any reduction in income.

“So we’re looking at, is there any opportunity, which is not going to restore all the benefits but maybe it can mitigate some of the losses,” he said.