More Americans Flock to Food Banks as SNAP Benefits Get Cut

Credit: Trevor Hughes, USA Today

Alisa Holteen likes to play a game where she imagines a life different from the ones she’s currently living.

“What would it be like,” she wonders, “to never have to worry about money?”

She posed this question recently at the homeless camp she lives at in Northeast Portland, chatting with friends outside her tent about what it would be like to have an unlimited supply of cash. Certainly, they’d always be warm and clean, and have a roof over their heads, they agreed. Perhaps best of all, she recalled wistfully, she’d never go hungry.

Holteen, 32, is one of an estimated 36 million Americans on food stamps, a federal benefits program that President Donald Trump’s administration wants to cut dramatically.

There are lots of potential changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) on the table, but earlier this month the Trump administration announced the first major change will be implemented early next year,  limiting benefits available to able-bodied adults between the ages of 18-49 — like Holteen — who do not have dependents. The change will not affect children and their parents, people over 50, people with disabilities or pregnant women.

Hunger is a problem across the U.S., with 37 million people suffering from food insecurity.That means roughly 1 in 10 Americans are hungry. And nearly one-third, or 11 million, are children.

Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON, a Los Angeles-based Jewish organization committed to fighting hunger, says whether they realize it or not, every single person is connected to someone else who struggles with food insecurity.

These are people hiding in plain sight, she says, terrified of raising their hands and self-identifying as someone who needs help, “especially in a climate where they’re being vilified.”

The rule changes will cut SNAP by roughly $4.2 billion over five years, and directly affect nearly 700,000 able-bodied Americans, according to the Urban Institute.

The charitable food sector — food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens — is bracing for a surge in need to make up for the loss in federal benefits, which means such organizations would need to nearly double their budgets and output to make up for the gap, according to MAZON.

Critics say the move is the latest stepby Trump to limit food benefits to low-income Americans. Forty-four percent of food stamp beneficiaries are working families, and 70% of them have children. They receive roughly $120 a month in benefits, and many use food pantries and food banks to supplement their benefits.

Other proposals to cut the program include limiting deductions for shelter and utility costs (which are considered when someone signs up for SNAP) and changing the way states automatically enroll people who are already receiving other forms of federal aid.

Supporters say the move protects U.S. taxpayers by motivating anyone who can work to get a job and support themselves.

“We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in a press release announcing the change. He went on to cite the national unemployment rate of 3.6%.

“Now is the time for every work-capable American to find employment,” the release read.

Holteen says it’s not that simple.

She’s been out of work for almost four years since she moved back to Oregon from Kansas. When a family member in Portland fell ill, Holteen says she quit her job in fast food and moved home. Shortly after that, her mother’s boyfriend — who paid the rent at their house — left abruptly, leaving Holteen, her girlfriend and her mom in a bind. They couldn’t pay rent and got evicted. They’ve been homeless since, living outside with her dog, a 65-pound mutt named Colby Jack Cheese who she also has to find food for.

Holteen struggles to leave the homeless camp to find a job, worried about abandoning her mom and girlfriend. She considers herself their protector because she says she’s one of the few non-addicts at the camp. She’s looked for a job but “it’s rough out there,” she says — especially when your stomach is growling.

“Without food,” she says, “you can’t think.”

Right now, Holteen visits food banks around Portland three to five times a month, but she anticipates she’ll go more if and when she gets kicked off her benefits.

It’s a scenario food pantries say they aren’t ready for. At St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Northeast Portland, where Holteen visits the food pantry once a month, they’re already talking about how they’ll combat the increased need.

“It’s gonna be an enormous challenge for us to figure out how to cover this financially,” says Chris Kresek, a St. Rita’s food pantry volunteer for 20-plus years. “If we tried to make up for how much people are going to lose, we’d spend what we have in the bank in two months. We’re gonna have to think of a new strategy.”

Robert Campbell, managing director of the Chicago-based food bank network Feeding America, says the Trump administration did what Congress would not, when legislators rejected similar cuts in the 2018 Farm Bill. And while food banks across the U.S. serve 46 million people annually, SNAP benefits provide nine times as many meals, according to Feeding America. That will be almost difficult to replicate.

“For those who are losing benefits, it can be absolutely devastating,” Campbell says. “Charity cannot make up the gap in food assistance from the SNAP program.”

Campbell says the Trump administration’s repeated efforts to clamp down on food stamp benefits show a clear pattern of taking a political stance without regard for how it will affect poor Americans.

“Taking food away will not make them more employable,” Campbell says. “It will just make them hungry.”

In rural Colorado, Lance Cheslock has worked for the nonprofit homeless shelter and food bank La Puente in Alamosa for 30 years, watching employment rise and fall with the economy. He’s also watched the potato-farming area’s slow shift away from good-paying jobs to service-industry positions paying minimum wage, with inconsistent hours and few benefits. Adjusted for inflation, the median family income in Alamosa County has dropped $2,000 since 2000, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Alamosa County unemployment rate of just 3% obscures the pocket of un- and under-employment in La Puente’s larger service area, which covers a multi-county rural area of Colorado that’s the size of Massachusetts, he says. Of the approximately 48,000 people who live there, he says about 10,000 get food assistance through La Puente or other organizations at least once annually.

“This is just going to be a disaster for us, to try to come up with food that offsets what the government would have provided. As a community, we will suffer the consequences of a malnourished population,” Cheslock says. “This is one more nudge, one more thing that will hurt.”

Cheslock says he and other leaders of La Puente, or The Bridge in English, understand that for most people, a good job is a pathway out of poverty and toward self-sufficiency. The problem, he says, is that many of the “able-bodied” people targeted by the new restrictions are not workforce ready. They might have struggled with homelessness, substance abuse or mental disorders that make it hard for them to hold down a job without extra help.

Lack of reliable transportation is also a factor. For people who live in areas with heavily seasonal work, it’s an especially tricky equation to solve, he said.

“To motivate someone to do something they can’t possibly do is going to misfire,” Cheslock says.

The cuts have been slammed by Democratic legislators at every level. 

Last year, Massachusetts state Rep. Natalie Higgins, 31, challenged herself to feed both her and her fiancé for five days using only food stamp benefits that worked out to just $45. She knew it would be hard. She didn’t realize how hard — and she had access to her own kitchen, a reliable car and even a pressure cooker, which meant she could buy inexpensive dried beans instead of more costly canned ones.

“I really wanted to show I understood how inadequate these benefits are,” says Higgins, a Democrat who represents Leominster, a city of about 42,000 that had an unemployment rate of nearly 5% at the start of 2018. Leominster, about 45 miles west of Boston, has a poverty rate of 13.3% and a per capita income of just $32,000.

“For many folks, SNAP doesn’t even come close to getting them to the end of the month,” she says.

Higgins and her fiancé ate lots of rice and beans during their food stamp challenge, supplemented with frozen veggies, oatmeal and peanut butter. Fresh fruits and vegetables were out of their price range. After only a few days, she developed a nagging headache and felt run-down — physical symptoms of a poor diet that also caused her to lose four pounds. 

“When you’re making minimum wage and housing costs keep going up and up and up, you just cannot make ends meet,” Higgins says. “I still can’t wrap my head around how cruel we can be as a country to take away this food assistance.”

That the news of impending cuts came around the holidays seems especially callous to some.

“This is a terrible time to be poor,” says Leibman, who leads MAZON. “To double down on their loss by saying, ‘And soon we’re gonna take food away from you,’ that’s a terrible thing to communicate to human beings. I just think America is better than that.”

A’Jay Scipio, 51, is the program manager of the Northeast Food Emergency Program in Northeast Portland, a large food pantry that in 2018 served more than 11,000 families. Scipio took the job a year ago and worried at first that she didn’t have the emotional bandwidth for it. The need in the area is both overwhelming and heartbreaking: In one recent three-month span, the program served 8,700 individuals.

She’s terrified to think of the future. Thursday afternoon, she announced new rules at the Northeast Food Emergency Program: Starting in January, clients can only come twice a month to shop the pantry. Previously, they’d had unlimited access.

Scipio rolls her eyes at the Trump’s administration’s claim of a thriving economy: “The economy might be booming for some people,” she says, “but it is not booming for immigrant families or low-income families. This ‘booming economy’ has not made its way to the margins.”

But even with that caveat, Scipio argues, this is an issue that affects everyday Americans.

“This is not a poor people problem,” she says. “There are hard-working people, middle-class people, people with good jobs, who are hungry every day.”

Tess Robertson and Chris DeFrance have been shopping at the Northeast Food Emergency Program for a little over a year. They only take non-perishable food, because they’re currently living in their ’98 Toyota Camry. Milk and frozen meat are out of the question, which means they have to make more trips to the store, buying in smaller quantities, which uses up their food stamp allotment faster. They don’t have access to a kitchen and regularly find themselves eating inside corner convenience stores.

Robertson, 28, recently got a job sorting mail at a local Amazon plant, but it’s only part-time and pays just $15.10 an hour. She says she applied to dozens of jobs and was turned down for all of them. She’s trying to get bumped up to full-time at Amazon. She’s worried it won’t happen before the SNAP cuts kick in.

DeFrance, 36, is technically able-bodied, too, but says he’s still recovering from an injury suffered at his previous job fixing cars. A few months ago, DeFrance says he was stabbed by a drug addict while working on a car. He hasn’t been able to find steady work since because “the PTSD is horrible.” To help him reacclimate to being around groups of strangers, he, along with Robertson, started volunteering at the pantry.

A heroin addict who’s been in recovery for three years, DeFrance tries not to think about the spring, when he and Robertson’s lives could get even more challenging.

“I try not to think about the future too much because thinking about that stuff makes you stressed. And when you’re an addict and you’re stressed, you can relapse,” he says.

“Right now it’s just about survival.”

SOURCE: USA Today, Lindsay Schnell and Trevor Hughes