By chance, Thursday’s U.S. House of Representatives vote to cut $39 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program program, also known as food stamps, coincided with the Feeding America food bank network’s SNAP Challenge, a request for everyone to try live one week on $4.50 worth of food per day, or the average amount SNAP food stamp recipients receive.
Rhonda Chafin, executive director of the regional Second Harvest Food Bank, learned of the vote Friday morning after waking up queasy on the fifth day of her SNAP Challenge diet of soup, bread, eggs, cereal, a little milk, a little coffee and a daily banana.
“I must tell you this SNAP Challenge is tough. There’s very little money for meat and veggies. I’ve had egg sandwiches, egg salad, boiled eggs and I woke up this morning queasy.
“I know how hard the SNAP Challenge is and there are people who are on the SNAP Challenge every day of their lives. All I can do is wonder how in the world are they going to make it,” Chafin said, referring to the House Republicans’ move to cut the food stamp program 5 percent over the next 10 years.
The cut passed the House by a vote of 217-210 with no Democratic votes of support and 15 Republican votes in opposition. The measure has already received harsh criticism from Senate Democrats and President Obama, who has vowed to veto it.
The reaction from local food stamp recipients and nonprofit feeding programs that assist them was primarily one of disappointment and worry on Friday.
Speaking by phone from Second Harvest, which provides food to an average of 39,000 Northeast Tennesseans each month, Chafin said, “It’s just so disappointing that they’re strapping the budget (cuts) on the backs of the poor. This is equivalent to 1.5 billion meals lost in fiscal 2014. That’s frightening.
“What’s going to happen is they’re going to depend more on soup kitchens and pantries and those soup kitchens and pantries are going to depend more on us, more than the high demand and requests for food we’re already receiving.
“Charity is absolutely not going to be able to make up for this cut that is falling on our most vulnerable neighbors. It’s the elderly, the working poor, veterans and children who are on these programs and really need these programs for food assistance,” Chafin said.
The reaction was similar at Good Samaritan Ministries in downtown Johnson City. The agency provides monthly food boxes to approximately 125 families and 128 homebound seniors, milk and juice for the Melting Pot emergency dining hall and small grocery parcels to an endless stream of clients who walk into the ministry daily in need of food.
David Miller, Good Samaritan’s social work director, said the recent high demand for help with food combined with cuts in government funding this week led the ministry to reduce its family food box distributions to families that receive food stamps from once a month to once every 60 days. Homebound seniors served by the ministry will continue to receive food box deliveries from the ministry every month.
“It’s really hard to know what $40 billion over 10 years is going to mean to Tennessee but it should be going the other way,” Miller said. “Food has gotten more expensive, not less expensive.
“Our pantry is going empty and we’re putting out an appeal for food donations from the community. There was a time when we gave food boxes to people who receive food stamps every 90 days. We dropped that to 30 days and now we’re back in the middle at 60 days because there’s not much here to give.”
“We don’t want anybody to go hungry but that’s a difficult thing to do.”
Sarah Wells, Good Samaritan executive director, said her greatest concern is for the elderly. On average, Wells said, elderly and disabled individuals served by the ministry qualify for $500 to $700 a month in Social Security or disability benefits and $10 to $17 a month in food stamps. “They are so appreciative for that because it allows them to buy their bread, milk, eggs and butter.
“My problem is my food account is zero. My question is how am I going to get it if I can’t purchase it, people are hungry and don’t have this, and more cuts are also coming down through the Farm Bill.”
In Johnson City’s Keystone public housing development, a 29-year-old mother of three young children receives $639 in food stamps month for her family of four, or the equivalent of $1.77 per person, per meal, per day. She said her food stamps typically run out around the 20th of each month and at that point she turns to her mother for money for groceries.
“I don’t know what I would do without my mom,” she said. “We get the cheapest store brands. We don’t buy junk food. It’s just the bare little I can get with that money. My kids go through a gallon of milk in about a week and a half.”
The 5 percent cut in food stamps “would hurt,” she said. “It would mean a lot of empty tummies growling.”