Food pantries brace for ‘panic’
By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Friday’s nationwide, automatic $5 billion cut in food stamp benefits is expected to hit Brooklyn families especially hard, according to Cornell University nutrition experts, who warn that a staggering one third of families in the borough use food stamps, compared to only 16 percent statewide.
Lua Wilkinson, a dietitian and graduate student at Cornell, told the Brooklyn Eagle that half of “SNAP” benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) go to feed children.
“Statistics from the 2011 report from the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness (ICPH) show that 32 percent of all Brooklyn families use SNAP to purchase food,” she said on Thursday. “These numbers have likely increased since 2011,” she warned, “and these benefits do not take into account the higher cost of living in New York City compared to other urban areas.”
According to ICPH, 56 to 63 percent of families with children in Borough Park, East New York and nearby neighborhoods receive SNAP benefits. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, Flatlands and Sunset Park, 50 to 56 percent of families with children receive SNAP.
The November 1 cuts are going to be a “big problem” for children, the elderly and disabled in Brooklyn, Wilkinson said. “There is nothing they can really do other than go to food pantries and kitchens.” Families in Brooklyn are looking at “food insecurity and possibly facing hunger.”
Dr. Melony Samuels, Executive Director of the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, the largest food pantry in Brooklyn, told the Eagle, “Based on the growing number of people already served, when the cuts happen on Friday there’s going to be a sense of panic as families run to pantries that already cannot make ends meet. We don’t have enough food to supply needs already. It’s going to be a tough time; we don’t know how to embrace it and we don’t know how to brace ourselves.”
Starting Friday, a family of three will see their food stamp benefits cut from $348 to $319 per month on average, a reduction of $29, Wilkinson said.
A family of four will receive $36 less per month; an individual will see an $11 reduction.
SNAP recipients have the funds added to “electronic benefit transfer cards” automatically at the first of each month. The $29 monthly reduction “may not seem like much to you or I, but it could be extremely significant” to families watching every penny, she said.
While opponents of SNAP benefits paint a picture of systemic program fraud (a food stamp-receiving “surfer dude” video has been making the rounds of the Internet), Wilkinson says that fraud has decreased significantly. “SNAP fraud has been cut by three quarters over the last 15 years, to an all-time low of less than three percent,” she said. “While we acknowledge fraud exists, there are so many other ways to deal with it than to cut benefits to children.”
This will be the first time that food stamp cuts have been made to every participant of the SNAP program.
Friday’s cuts mark the end of benefit increases passed as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. Though employment has increased since the recession, however, job growth is still sluggish and many jobs are low paying. Food stamp usage has increased from a little over 26 million users in 2007 to almost 47 million in 2012.
And this may not be the end of food stamp reductions, Wilkinson said. Republicans in Congress are pushing for further cuts. “The Farm Bill, which would cut an additional $39 billion over the next 10 years, is still up in the air. We expect more cuts, but that’s not decided on yet.”
Wilkinson encouraged people to “give more to trusted food pantries and kitchens.”
Dr. Samuels asked people to donate money via the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger website (http://bedstuyagainsthunger.org ) rather than drop off food products. “Even though things have gotten tough, we do not want to go back to high sodium and sugar products, and our funds stretch better at the supermarket.”