Charities providing emergency food assistance across New Haven are beginning to feel the weight of recent cuts to the federal supplemental nutrition assistance program, formerly known as food stamps.
On Nov. 1, the boost in funding to SNAP instated by the 2009 stimulus package expired, leaving individuals and families facing food insecurity across the country with a significantly lower monthly food budget. Many families’ financial situations have been further burdened by Congress’s decision not to extend monthly unemployment benefits to those out of work longer than 26 weeks. These factors, combined with the rising price of food, have forced many to rely on emergency food services, churches and other charitable organizations to provide daily meals.
“It’s putting a serious strain on the charity system,” said Charlene Edwards, a New Haven resident who is currently between homes and has been unable to feed herself since her unemployment benefits were cut off on Jan. 1. “I’ve worked for almost 50 years and paid taxes and contributed — I wouldn’t have believed in a million years I’d end up here in a soup kitchen. It’s insane that this is happening in the USA.”
The reductions have not just affected the unemployed. Rick Durance, the assistant director of the Community Soup Kitchen at Christ Church on Broadway, said that about a third of the 315 people they feed each day work full-time but still struggle to make enough money to buy food.
Robert Jackson, the organization’s supervisor, said he has noticed an increase in demand for meals, especially at the beginning of the month, which said is unusual because people often don’t run out of food stamps until the end of the month.
“We’re feeding more people, and more people are coming to us in dire straits,” he said. “The turnout used to be more predictable. Now we have to see how many people are coming on a day-by-day basis.”
He added the rising number of children at the soup kitchen is particularly troubling, showing that families are becoming more desperate.
Rick Durance, the assistant director at the Community Soup Kitchen, said that the SNAP cuts are a blow to their resources during a period in which demand has already been on a gradual uptick. He said they served 5,000 more meals in 2013 than the year before, and the previous year’s jump was over 10,000.
In the wake of additional food stamp and unemployment benefit cuts, he added, the kitchen is expecting an even larger jump in demand, undermining their efforts to reverse the trend.
“We just have to make the food go further,” he said. “We have to make things stretch in the same way individual families across the country are making things stretch.”
Smaller emergency food providers have not been able to provide for everyone coming to their doors. Kimberly Hart, another New Haven resident impacted by the SNAP reduction, said that food pantries quickly run out of foods she needs to keep herself and her son healthy. She said she has to get in line outside the Mt. Hope food pantry at least three hours in advance if she hopes to come away with a chicken or fresh produce.
“They don’t let you in before they open and it’s really, really cold,” she said. “I just layer up, make sure no skin is exposed to the elements and try to keep moving while I’m waiting. I have to make a day of it.”
When she doesn’t have time to wait at the food pantry, she said her food budget only allows her to buy cheaper processed foods at the store. She worries that her son is gaining weight because of the inconsistent diet.
New Haven’s robust network of support services for the hungry makes it a magnet for homeless people from surrounding towns, Durance said. Jackson said he has noticed that only about half of the people eating in the dining hall are from New Haven.
“It is spurious logic to think that by not helping people hunger will go away,” Durance said. “It is clear that folks need help. These cuts aren’t reducing the problem of hunger, just moving [it] onto us.”
A congressional committee is currently debating a much larger cut to SNAP benefits. House Republicans passed a $40 billion cut to the program over ten years, in what House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called a “common sense” effort to reduce fraud and dependency on the program.
By contrast, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed a $4.1 billion cut to the program in a bipartisan vote. Advocates worry that a compromise would still cut $8-10 billion from the program, restricting eligibility and reducing benefits again.
“A lot of people would lose eligibility for the program completely,” said William Bromage, chair of the Food Assistance Working Group of the Food Policy Council. “The nuance is that SNAP is supplemental. The cuts dehumanize people who have low incomes or are disabled.”
The Food Policy Council is working to rally support for the state’s anti-hunger legislators including Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Rep. Rosa DeLauro.
One in five New Haven residents said they did not have enough money to buy food at some point in 2012, according to DataHaven’s 2013 Community Index report. Forty percent of residents in low-income neighborhoods said they were unable to afford healthy foods in that year.