Christine Cousineau will get by with an $11 cut in her monthly food stamp allotment, she said, but she’ll feel it.
“Eleven dollars cuts me back on milk, bread, maybe even meat,” said Cousineau of Burlington, a 64-year-old former machine operator on disability because of arthritis.
As of Nov. 1, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program reduced the amount given to recipients, marking the end of federal stimulus money that provided a recession-time boost. SNAP provides funding for what is commonly known as food stamps, and is administered by the state of Vermont as 3SquaresVT.
For a single person, the cut is $11; for a family of two it’s $20; for a family of three, $29; and family of four, $36. The average household on 3SquaresVT received $243 a month before the reductions.
The cutbacks were expected, but come at a time when many recipients also face other challenges, including:
• The economy is still wobbling on toddler-like legs. Vermont still has 2,000 fewer jobs than in pre-recession 2007. A recent census survey indicated that nationally wages had not rebounded and the number of people in poverty remained the same from 2011 to 2012.
• Congress is talking about cutting food stamps further by as much as $40 billion over 10 years.
• Sequestration cuts have also just been made to other federally funded social services programs. Fuel assistance, subsidized housing, child care assistance and WIC subsidies have all seen cuts.
“It’s a combination of reductions that makes it very hard to be poor right now,” said David Yacavone, commissioner of the state Department for Children & Families.
“Everybody I talk to is just beside themselves,” said Cousineau, as she was volunteering recently at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf in Burlington where she is also a client.
Food shelves are the next place for people to turn when their food stamps run out. Around the state, those who run food shelves are bracing for — and in some cases already seeing — greater demand. Community after community has examples of local volunteers stepping up to fill the void.
The Milton Family Community Center food shelf normally sees 80 families a month, but halfway through November already had 60, said manager Cheryl Alwine. Usually, 150 boxes of food from a separate federal commodities program lasts the whole month, but they were gone by Nov. 18, she said.
The Hinesburg Food Shelf saw 111 families in October 2012. A year later, that number climbed to 123 for the month, said co-director Jeff Glover.
The Colchester Food Shelf went over budget on food it purchases for the year and had to dip into reserves, said President James Ehlers. Though the number of clients has remained the same, he said, for reasons that are unclear, there has been more turnover this year. Some families have left but have been replaced by an equal number.
The 5-year-old Williston Food Shelf had in the past spent $25,000 in aholiday season and this year will spend $40,000 to meet the demand, said President Cathy Michaels. “We’ve seen such an increase in use this year,” Michaels said.
The real brunt, several food shelf managers said, is likely to hit after the holidays, when donations drop off and winter sets in, especially if Congress cuts the food stamp program further.
“We’re kind of anticipating a tough winter for people,” said Angela Smith-Dieng, 3SquaresVT advocacy manager for the organization Hunger Free Vermont. “It’s going to build over time.”
“It’s very likely that further cuts are coming,” said John Sayles, chief executive officer of the Vermont Foodbank, which supplies a portion of the food that local food shelves distribute. “I think the benefits need to be increased.”
More cuts coming?
In Washington, the House has proposed cutting $40 billion from SNAP over 10 years. The Senate has suggested $4.5 billion in cuts. Negotiations on the Farm Bill, where the program is funded, are expected to heat up this month.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is on the Farm Bill conference committee, voted against future cuts and co-sponsored a bill that would have halted the Nov. 1 end-of-stimulus cuts, spokesman David Carle said.
“The SNAP funding issue is the most difficult remaining issue (in addition to dairy) in the House-Senate conference on the Farm Bill,” Carle said.
With both the House and Senate proposing cuts, some level of reduced funding for the next 10 years seems inevitable.
“Really, they’re negotiating the size of the cuts,” Sayles said. “I see this as a really bad omen for Vermont. I really do expect with these cuts we’ll have families that were getting by that are now going to be stretched and have to go to food shelves.”
Nationally and in Vermont, the number of people applying for food stamps has been rising. In Vermont, 48,480 families received 3SquaresVt in 2012, compared to 19,605 a decade earlier in 2002. The increase continued in 2013, even with the recession technically in the rear-view mirror.
That’s to be expected, according to a July report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which said, “SNAP enrollment and costs are high because the job market remains weak. … The historical record shows that declines in poverty and SNAP enrollment typically lag behind declines in the unemployment rate following recessions.”
The report noted that the Congressional Budget Office anticipates SNAP costs will eventually decline as the job market picks up. “CBO projects that by 2019, SNAP costs will fall all of the way back to their mid-1990s level, measured as a share of gross domestic product,” the report said.
For Vermont food shelves, the rising demand for food comes on top of a decision this fall by Shaw’s supermarkets to stop donating soon-to-expire perishables, Sayles said. “It was about 8 percent of our food,” he said.
Shaw’s made the New England-wide decision, saying it had implemented new strategies to better manage its stock and that it would continue to help the Foodbank in other ways.
Hannaford supermarkets and various local grocery stores continue to donate perishables, he said. The Foodbank is talking with Shaw’s and Price Chopper about other possible ways the stores might contribute, he said.
The Vermont Foodbank is also looking for new ways to provide more healthy, local produce for food shelf clients, including working with the Vermont Food Venture Center to peel and freeze fresh foods and give them a longer shelf life, he said.
The Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf in Burlington is conducting classes to teach people how to prepare healthy and cost-efficient meals, Executive Director Rob Meehan said.
The network of smaller food shelves in communities around Chittenden County have grown markedly in the last five years. They receive some food from the Vermont Foodbank, but are also fueled by volunteers and local contributions. Each town has had its own unique way of looking out for its own residents.
Colchester outgrew its church-run food closet and now has a nonprofit organization open three days a week in a Main Street building, operated with the help of 60 volunteers and supported by local fundraising.
Hinesburg’s food shelf operates out of its own building donated by NRG Systems. Richmond has a five-day-a-week downtown storefront food shelf that is funded in part by sales from its thrift store.
Last week, food shelves were handing out hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys, many of which were donated by local residents and stores. Those were a bonus on top of the usual offerings, which food shelves typically allow families to collect once a month.
At the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf on a recent day, Cousineau was working as a volunteer, overseeing the distribution of fresh produce. There was less produce than usual now that the growing season is over, she said, so clients were allowed half a bag each. The lack of food from Shaw’s is noticeable, she said.
The shelves to her right were full of canned goods, pasta and peanut butter. She said bread is usually plentiful.
Cousineau said she relies on the food shelf to stretch her budget. She has no car, so she can’t do much bulk shopping, but she said she is a careful shopper. “I can live on very little,” she said
Cousineau added that the cuts in food stamps will really hurt some people she knows. Her granddaughter’s food stamps, she said, were cut by $20 for her and her baby.
There is good news, though. Her granddaughter recently landed a job after looking for a couple of years. A sign of an improving economy?