Food stamp cuts to impact Washington region

Correction: Nancy Roman, of the Capital Area Food Bank, originally was misidentified. This story has been updated.

The region’s most vulnerable residents will find themselves reshuffling their budgets Friday when a temporary boost to the federal food stamps program expires, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars used by families to keep food on the table.

Nationally, the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, will be reduced by $5 billion after a vast expansion over the past five years. In the District, about 61 percent more residents use food stamps than did in 2007, according to data from NeighborhoodInfo DC. That amounts to more than 144,000 residents, or nearly one in every four.

The increases were also stark in the suburbs. In Montgomery County, for example, there was a 183 percent increase in residents using food stamps, from about 25,000 to 71,000 today. Similar increases were seen in Prince George’s and Fairfax counties.

The impact of the cut on individuals will vary widely, but experts estimate that those on food stamps will receive between 5 and 8 percent less. For example, a family of three with no income will see monthly benefits reduced by $29, to $497 from $526.

“That could be lunch for a week,’’ said Deborah Carroll, administrator of the District’s Economic Security Administration. “It will definitely have an effect on how people access food.”

States have largely declared that little can be done on their part to help augment the program. In Maryland, which has a goal of ending hunger by 2015, officials are still working to get more families whatever SNAP benefits they can, according to Brian Schleter, the state’s spokesman for the Department of Human Services. In Virginia, in which one in every 10 residents receive food stamps, officials are encouraging people to seek help from local charities and churches.

A number of those organizations have said they are already stretched thin because of increasing demand, fewer donations and sequestration-related cuts.

The Capital Area Food Bank, which supplies food for about 500 service organizations, is already buying more food, according to Nancy Roman, the organization’s executive director. Anticipating the cuts, Roman said, they have purchased 50 percent more food this month than last — including 1,020 bags of sweet potatoes, 680 bags of mixed greens, 340 cans of tomatoes and 1,036 pounds of ground turkey.

“We’re trying to put ourselves in a position where we can help people who need food,’’ Roman said.

Officials in the government and at feeding programs are paying close attention to the current congressional debate over a new Farm Bill, which threatens even more cuts. Those trying to preserve food stamps argue they help keep families afloat in uncertain times. Others argue that the program’s ballooning is a sign of overzealous government spending, and overdependence on government.

Across the country, 47 million people are enrolled in the $80 billion program, which expanded in 2009 as a part of stimulus funding. Expansion was seen not only as a way to help hungry families but to help keep supermarkets and grocery stores in business.

It is estimated that a family spends $1.70 to supplement each dollar of food stamp money they receive, said Alexandra Ashbrook, the director of the nonprofit DC Hunger Solutions. Without the money, families might not go grocery shopping at all, instead relying on fast food and handouts.

Even as the country crept out of recession, salaries have not kept up with inflation or the price of gas and food, Ashbrook said. This has led to continued reliance on the benefit.

Indeed, some cities and towns have seen their local economies completely revolve around the first of the month, when families receive food stamps. By month’s end, spending drops as recipients run out of benefits.

Foot traffic had slowed to a trickle outside Murry’s supermarket in Northeast Washington on Thursday.

“I don’t know how much I’ll be getting tomorrow,’’ said Shanita Allen, 20, as she walked past the store with her 3-year-old, Jaden. “But I’m worried about if they cut any more. People need to eat, and jobs are hard to come by. I need it to stay as is.”

Many who came to the food pantry at Martha’s Table said they didn’t know cuts to the program were coming. Alton Blagmon, a disabled 60-year-old, said he’s relied on food stamps for a year, since he started living alone.

The $36 that Blagmon receives each month helps him buy leafy vegetables and frees up spending for his medication, he said.

By the middle of the month, Blagmon said he finds himself asking for food. By the end of the month, he is joining long lines at food banks.

“Oh man, these cuts are going to hurt a lot of people,’’ Blagmon said. “I’m already out of food. And when you go out and try to ask [strangers] for food, people don’t want to help you out. This is kind of bad.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local