Connecticut feels impact of food stamp cuts

One chilly afternoon in mid November, Kimberly Hart made her familiar walk to Mount Hope Food Pantry in Dixwell. At 5:15 p.m., she thought she was early, but the 50 people lined up in front of her had beat her by 5 hours.

By the time she reached the front, the canned ham or small chicken she was counting on to make up her and her 11-year-old son’s source of protein had already run out.

Like New Haven’s 36,210 other recipients of the Supplemental Assistance Food Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, Hart has been relying more and more on food pantries and soup kitchens since the federal government reduced her monthly food assistance check from $252 to $212 on Nov. 1, when the boost to the program from the 2009 stimulus package expired. After November’s round of cuts, The 2013 Farm Bill currently under negotiation in Washington is almost certain to cut SNAP benefits even deeper, with the Democrat-controlled Senate calling for a $4.5 billion cut over ten years, while the Republican-controlled House has proposed a $40 billion cut.

Hannah Croasmun ’01, who works with the New Haven Food Policy Council to train SNAP recipients to advocate against federal budget cuts, said that reliance on emergency food assistance nationwide is going to increase, straining non-profit and church-run food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens.

In the month of November, Hart has taken her 11-year-old son to eat at a soup kitchen three times — the same number of times as in all of 2012.

“The hunger outweighed the embarrassment,” she said. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the soup kitchen, but we were not accustomed to it. Now we’re going to have to be because SNAP used to be enough — now its not.”

The food at many New Haven food banks is already old and stale, said Elaine Peters, a New Haven resident and SNAP recipient. She added that there are several major barriers preventing her and other low-income residents from accessing healthy food, including inadequate transportation and high prices.

“[The lawmakers] aren’t in our shoes,” she said. “It’s hard to manage providing healthy meals for yourself and your family daily. Our community and children … suffer greatly and struggle to make ends meet.”

The increase in SNAP benefits, put in place by the Federal Stimulus Package in 2009, was intended to be temporary. But volunteers and recipients say the boost should have been maintained because of increased cost of living.

“The price of food has gone up since 2009. They should have left it as it is,” said Cher Frampton, volunteer coordinator for Lutheran Community Services, Delaware’s largest food pantry, which has publicized its difficulties in the wake of the most recent SNAP cuts. “Households that are using SNAP are living off of nothing. Taking away $60-70 from a family of six means a lot to them.”

Billy Bromage, chair of the Food Access Working Group for the New Haven Food Policy Council, said New Haven will face serious social impacts, including increased rates of obesity as people are forced to rely on cheap calorie-dense foods, and a wider achievement gap as low-income students have trouble concentrating because of hunger.

In Washington, New Haven Rep. Rosa DeLauro finds herself in the minority when advocating to keep SNAP funding at current levels. Renewal of The Farm Bill, into which the SNAP cuts are bundled, is already over a year past due.

“It is beyond disappointing that so many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have chosen to focus on cutting a program that helps feed the poorest and most vulnerable,” she said in an email. “I fear we may be looking at a cut that would cause deep harm to the families that need SNAP to help put food on the table, and especially the nearly 21 million children [across the country].”

But House Republicans maintain that the bill will streamline the program and encourage recipients to not lean on federal assistance.

In a public statement about the $40 billion cut to SNAP, Lucas wrote, “[The bill] encourages and enables work participation, closes program loopholes, and eliminates waste, fraud and abuse while saving the American taxpayer nearly $40 billion.”

Bromage said the cuts will not only reduce some families’ monthly food budget — it will remove many families from the program entirely. It will also reduce programs designed to help people get the most out of their food stamps, he said.

Currently, SNAP dollars are worth twice as much at New Haven farmer’s markets, which programs such as CitySeed bring to low-income neighborhoods in the city.

He said that cutting food stamps would be a step in the wrong direction if Washington wanted to see more revenue, citing a report by Mark Zandi, the chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com, which concluded that each dollar invested in food stamps returns $1.73 in economic stimulus.

The number of food insecure Connecticut residents rose by 5.8 percent in the last 10 years, compared to the national average of 3.9 percentage points.

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