Food Banks Fret Over Looming Food Stamp Cuts
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Capitol Area Food Bank distributes 50 million pounds of food per year. In fact, it distributed 50 million pounds over the last two years. KUT News regrets the error.
A major overhaul of the country’s nutrition and farm program is stalled in Congress. That legislation, known as the Farm Bill, expires this month. It accounts for close to a trillion dollars’ worth of government spending over 10 years.
The biggest portion of that is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. Local food banks are worried about proposed cuts to the program.
Maria del Rosario Ramirez is an undocumented immigrant who lives in southeast Austin. Because she’s not a U.S. citizen, she isn’t eligible for food stamps. Her granddaughter, who was born in America, is. They receive about $200 a month.
“I am a housecleaner,” Ramirez said in Spanish. “With that I cover all my costs. I’m also receiving food stamps. It’s the only thing that I have for my child, and that’s how we continue to eat. The little that I get from food stamps is all I am entitled to receive. I go to churches to ask for food, and with that we eat.”
Ramirez is one of 162,000 people in Travis County at risk of hunger. And if a modified food stamps program passes through Congress, she may have to rely even more heavily on churches.
The Republican U.S. House and the Democratic U.S. Senate both say the food stamps program should be cut. They only differ by how much. The Senate wants $4 billion in cuts. The House wants $16 billion.
The House version of the farm bill would see about 1.8 million Americans lose eligibility for food stamps. If Travis County were to receive a proportional share of those cuts, it would mean almost 5,000 people would lose benefits. Some groups say it could be twice that.
“Those people aren’t going to have their needs go away,” said Celia Cole with the Texas Food Bank Network. “They’re going to remain hungry. And it’s going to pose an increased demand on our food banks’ resources, which are stretched pretty tight already.”
One factor stretching food bank resources is a decline in food commodities provided to them by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program has been reduced by about 30 percent since 2009.
“Those commodities and food somewhere around a third of our inventory,” said John Turner with the Capital Area Food Bank. “So if the inventory gets cut as well, it’s a perfect storm.”
The Capitol Area Food Bank distributed 50 million pounds of food over the last two years to local organizations that then gave it to hungry people.
“We’re basically already stretched, I think it’s fair to say, to a breaking point, trying to keep up with the increase in need,” Turner said.
Some of that demand might be alleviated if more people who qualified for food stamps would apply for them. In Travis County for example, 114,000 people receive SNAP benefits. But twice as many people meet the income requirements, according to U.S. Census poverty estimates.
The reasons they don’t apply are numerous and complicated. Some people might not realize they’re eligible. Others might be too proud to accept a government handout. Zully Pauline, a case manager at the local charity El Buen Samartiano Episcopal Mission, says some legal immigrants are worried that it might harm their chances of becoming citizens.
“We have a lot of people who are in the process of obtaining citizenship, and one of the things that they’re told is that you can’t be a ‘public charge,’” Pauline said. “And they’re very afraid of doing anything that is tied to the government, which is why they use community food banks.”
The farm bill expires Sept. 30. Congress returns from recess next week, but it’s only in session for eight days this month. If lawmakers can’t come to an agreement, their most likely step is to pass a short-term extension of the farm bill, putting off a decision until voters choose who will run the country.