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Among cuts in federal budget proposal: Funds for poor seniors’ food

By Alfred Lubrano
Inquirer Staff Writer

Deep in the proposed $3 trillion federal budget is a little-noticed line that would take food away from 150,000 senior citizens living in poverty throughout America.

There’s been barely a peep about it because most people don’t know it’s happening.

The Republican-led House of Representatives signed off on the item, which proposes to cut $38 million from the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). The program pays for parcels known as “senior boxes,” which contain enough food for 12 meals a month.

The proposed cut is a 22 percent reduction from the total of $176 million for the program offered by President Obama.

If the Senate passes the measure, 7,610 Pennsylvania senior citizens – many in their 90s with annual incomes under $8,000 – may lose the food, according to Sheila Christopher, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Regional Food Banks.

To describe advocates of the poor as upset would be to understate their ire.

“Members of our greatest generation shouldn’t have their heads on the chopping block,” said Frank Kubik, manager of a CSFP in Detroit. “Seniors have given so much to this country. Let’s not take food off their tables.”

Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief agency in the United States, called the proposed cut “unconscionable.”

Dick Chevrefils, Pennsylvania’s director of the senior lobby AARP, said, “We believe Washington needs to address our nation’s growing debt, but . . . [not] by cutting low-income seniors’ access to food. . . .”

What advocates can’t understand is why Republicans found it necessary to identify and slash such a small program, a tiny moon in the giant universe of the budget.

“It’s just the cost-cutting climate,” Kubik said. “It’s so shortsighted.”

Republicans have said that poor seniors could get food stamps to make up for the loss.

But many seniors eschew food stamps because they are daunted by the application process or fear dealing with the food-stamp bureaucracy, advocates say.

“I never applied for food stamps,” said Alma Grant, 69, who lives with her husband, George, 75, and a mentally disabled 51-year-old son in Northeast Philadelphia. The family’s combined income is $15,600, nearly $3,000 below the poverty line, making them eligible for food stamps. “They’re not safe places where you have to go to get them.”

Even elderly people who receive food stamps often run out by the third week of every month, leaving the poor scrambling in those desperate final seven days, researchers have found.

“At the end of the month, people go to food pantries to get something to eat with their food stamps exhausted,” said Marlo DelSordo, spokeswoman for Philabundance, the largest hunger-relief agency in the area. Philabundance provides 9,176 of the state’s 34,588 senior boxes.

“And,” DelSordo added, “seniors don’t have the ability to work to increase their income.”

Besides, Christopher said, many seniors are homebound and can’t shop, even with food stamps. The senior boxes are delivered to senior centers and residences that are near most recipients, she added.

In New Jersey, 3,000 seniors participate in CSFP.

The powerful symbolism of depriving seniors of food was not lost on legislators. Fifteen in Pennsylvania’s 19-member congressional delegation supported the program, including nine Republicans.

“It was a vote I cast in opposition to most in my party,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick of Bucks County’s Eighth District.

“Seniors are especially affected by increases in prices for food and energy. My mother volunteers in a food bank in Levittown. I know a lot of needy seniors.”

To reduce some of the $38 million cut, some House members proposed to take $10 million from the administrative budget of the federal Farm Service Agency and give it to CSFP. The agency helps implement farm conservation.

Faced with the choice of “getting more computers for FSA,” as Kubik put it, or keeping impoverished senior citizens fed, most House Republicans voted for FSA.

“I thought the more equitable approach would have been to give it to the program for seniors that was being hard-hit,” Fitzpatrick said.

Grant said she was worried about losing the senior boxes she and her husband receive, which include canned vegetables, cereal, peanut butter, and rice or pasta.

“There probably wouldn’t be enough food for us to eat,” said Grant, who has four children who are unable to help. “It would be a shame to lose those boxes.”

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