“This time of year the impact probably won’t be quite as severe,” said Betsy Curlee, director of FIRST Family Service Center in Talladega. “People donate a lot around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and that includes food, so there will be a lot of food at the food banks and a lot of people helping in the community. But probably after the first of the year when (the cut) is still ongoing, it will probably hit the community very hard.”
The decrease results from the expiration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that went into effect in April 2009.
Nationwide, the approximately one in seven Americans enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will see a decrease in their benefits of about 5.5 percent, said Barry Spear, public information manager for the Alabama Department of Human Resources.
Though the decrease took effect Nov. 1, Alabama food stamp recipients will start receiving their November allocations on Nov. 4, and distributions are spread throughout the month.
“It’s done that way partly for our benefit, but also it makes it easier for the grocery stores to keep perishables fresh so people have the same selection throughout the month,” Spear said. “If it all went out at the beginning of month, they would clean the stores out.”
He said SNAP benefit amounts are determined by several factors, including income, household size and expenses, so the amount of the decrease will vary depending on individual circumstances. While many families and individuals do not receive the maximum benefit, a family of four receiving the maximum benefit will see their benefit decrease from $668 to $632 per month and an individual recipient receiving the maximum benefit will see a decrease from $200 to $189 per month – $36 for a family, $11 for an individual.
Talladega County has 16,940 recipients who received $2,220,275 in August, the last month for which figures are available. St. Clair County has 12,333 recipients who received $1,601,063.
“The reduction is about 5.5 percent of that, give or take,” Spear said.
With the counties together receiving about $3.82 million per month, the monthly cut tallies approximately $210,000 in the area.
Last year, more than 900,000 people in Alabama received almost $1.4 billion in SNAP benefits. The local numbers for the year were $27 million for Talladega County and $19.7 million in St. Clair County, according to detailed figures reported on dhr.alabama.gov. Nationally, some 47 million people receive food assistance through SNAP, about one in seven Americans.
“In Talladega County there are more than 2,000 families that will be seriously affected by the rollback in the SNAP program,” said Jim Jones, director of Alabama Childhood Food Solutions and End Hunger Sylacauga. “It’s really up to the rest of us to pull together. We are trying to meet the need the best we can, but the needs are bigger than what we have. We need help.”
He said his organization buys food at deep discounts through the Central Alabama Community Food Bank in Birmingham and each month distributes boxes of 30 to 40 pounds of food to families in need.
“The box usually has frozen meat, fresh vegetables, a dessert such as cakes or cookies, and current-labeled canned goods. There will be spaghetti, spaghetti sauce, powdered instant potatoes … Anyone would be willing to take the box home.”
Jones said cash donations are the best help for his organization because it’s easier to buy food from the food bank than to sort through mountains of donated canned goods.
“We can make a difference in our area by working together,” Jones said.
Nationally, the $5 billion cut to the $80 billion SNAP program is the first across-the-board cut to the decades-old food stamp program. More cuts could be on the horizon. Congress started Wednesday on the final round of negotiations on a five-year farm bill that would likely mean further cuts in SNAP. The House of Representatives is looking for a further $4 billion cut, while the Senate version would cut about a tenth of that amount, according to published reports.
SNAP benefits are funded with 100 percent federal dollars through the United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service and may only be used to purchase food, according to a press release from the Alabama DHR.
“SNAP’s purpose is to improve nutrition by providing monthly benefits to eligible low-income households to help them buy the food they need for good health. All states operate the SNAP program according to regulations set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” the release said.
Each household will receive a notice by mail that will tell them the exact amount of their benefits after the change has been made. They may also call 1-800-382-0499 to find out the new amount of their monthly benefit.
Reuters reported that enrollment in SNAP – the largest American anti-hunger program – has doubled and the program’s cost has nearly tripled since 2004, and has remained at record levels even as the economy improves and unemployment declines.
“Critics say the surge shows reform is vital as part of federal deficit reduction,” Reuters reported. “Defenders say the high enrollment is a sign of the weak recovery from the 2008-09 recession and sluggish job growth.”
Talladega’s Curlee worries about the impact the cut will have on senior adults.
“It will hurt he elderly who have to choose between buying groceries and buying their medicine. Now they’re really going to have to choose the most essential foods that they can’t do without. The elderly shouldn’t have to choose between food and medicine. They’ve worked hard and given to the system. I see the elderly and some undereducated people who will probably be hurt worst. A lot of people truly, truly need the help.”
Sylacauga’s Jones said seniors who receive less than $30 a month will now have no food stamp support at all. “What that will do to their lives is cause extreme food insecurity,” he said.
He said End Hunger Sylacauga provided food for 254 families in October, and is anticipating the need to feed 300 families this month. Food distribution will be on Tuesday, Nov. 26, at the J. Craig Smith Community Center, with registration beginning at 7:30 a.m. He said TempForce and Coosa Valley Medical Center are supporting his agency’s efforts to provide for the hungry in Sylacauga.
At The Samaritan House in Talladega, president Charles Montgomery said $36 a month could have a big impact on a family.
“A lot of the people we see aren’t buying much meat and fresh fruit at the grocery store. I’m sure a lot of them are getting a lot of starches – rice, beans, ramen noodles and boxed macaroni and cheese. Thirty-six dollars would feed some of these families for several days.”
According to the government website benefits.gov, to qualify for food stamps in Alabama, a household must have an income of less than $14,079 for one person; $18,941 for two people; $23,803 for three people; $28,665 for four people. For larger households, $4,862 is added for each additional person in the home.
Talladega County Department of Human Resources Director Nicole Parker said Friday that the first day of the cut was “business as usual – no issues.”
But she said she expects to hear feedback from food stamp recipients as they receive their monthly allotments beginning next week.
In St. Clair County, DHR firector Cherri Pilkington said it’s too soon to know how deeply the cut will be felt. “Families will have to look for other services and be very careful how they manage the resources they’ve got,” she said.
Contact Bill Kimber at email@example.com