Food Pantries Stretched Thin
Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry services 1,250 active client families who struggle to put food on their plates. Each month, the families are eligible to receive enough free food to cover three meals per day for an eight-day stretch.
Such needs could rise in Delaware County following a Nov. 1 reduction in federal funding for food stamps.
In a typical month, Loaves and Fishes registers about 20-30 new households, Director Joanne Castagna said. However, the pantry registered 14 new families in a single day earlier this month.
That influx came less than a week after federal funding for food stamps was reduced by $5 billion. Exactly how much of that influx could be directly attributed to the funding cut was unclear, but Castagna anticipates the reduction will bring more people through the doors of Loaves and Fishes.
“We’re going to have a lot more registrations,” Castagna said following an afternoon in which 74 families received boxes containing nutritional meals.
Congress did not renew stimulus funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, slashing the $80 billion federal food stamps program by $5 billion. The funding cut — the first in program history — means a family of four will receive about $36 less a month, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That reduction is the equivalent of about 21 meals.
Delaware County residents will lose a combined $7.19 million in food stamps — equitable to 2.7 million meals — over the next 12 months, according to an analysis conducted by Feeding America, a nonprofit anti-hunger organization based in Chicago. Those tallies are the third highest in the state behind Philadelphia and Allegheny County.
George Matysik, director of government affairs at Philabundance, anticipated a “record need” during the holiday season as Delaware County residents look to food pantries and other nonprofit organizations to fulfill their needs.
“This is something that’s going to impact every neighborhood within Delaware County from Aston to Yeadon,” Matysik said. “We’re going to see increased needs in every community in Delaware County.”
An estimated 22,555 households in Delaware County received food stamps in 2012, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey. Of those households, 47.4 percent are white; 44.7 percent are black. More than half have at least one child. Another 26.4 percent include a resident age 60 or above.
Sister Sandra Lyons, director of the Bernadine Center in Chester, said it will be difficult for pantries to meet the needs created by the diminished SNAP benefits. Food prices are rising and donations are decreasing, she said.
“Pantries are really stressed,” Lyons said. “A lot of middle-class people are donors to our food pantries. But those people are also on the fringe economically right now.”
The Bernadine Center gave out 10 emergency meals during the first full week of November, Lyons said. Typically, the center distributes about two per week. Another 15 new families signed up to receive supplemental meals, a service the center provides to about 450 people each month.
“People can make it for about three weeks out of the month” using food stamps, Lyons said. “I’m thinking that time period is going to be a lot shorter and they’re not going to be able to make it that three weeks.”
Both the Bernadine Center and Loaves and Fishes are part of the Delaware County Interfaith Food Assistance Network, a group of 12 pantries administered by Family and Community Service of Delaware County. The agency provides the pantries with government-assisted food.
Executive Director Alan Edelstein said the agency was unhappy that Congress allowed the stimulus funding to expire. Though the economy is recovering from the recession, Edelstein noted unemployment remains high and suburban poverty continues to rise.
Last year, 8.3 percent of Delco families and 11.8 percent of residents lived in poverty, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey. Those rates are up from 2011, when 7.5 percent of families and 9.9 percent of residents lived in poverty. In 2000, only 5.8 percent of families and 8.0 percent of residents lived in poverty.
The county’s unemployment rate stands at 8 percent — nearly double the rate before the recession hit in 2008.
Edelstein said the people who utilize the county’s food pantries are not simply seeking a handout.
“They really need the food to get by,” Edelstein said. “They wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. A lot of them have a lot of pride. It’s difficult for them emotionally as they have to go stand in the lines to access food. In some cases, people have been working all their lives.”
The $5 billion reduction might be a precursor to more significant food stamp cuts. The U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed a food stamps bill in September that would slash SNAP by nearly $40 billion over the next 10 years. A farm bill passed in June by the U.S. Senate would cut food stamps by $4.5 billion. The two bodies must sort out the differences and pass one bill.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., heads a group of conservatives who argue that SNAP has become bloated, noting its cost has doubled in the last five years. The House bill also includes stricter work requirements aimed at reducing program abuse.
“This bill is designed to give people a hand when they need it most,” Cantor said on the House floor in September. “And most people don’t choose to be on food stamps. Most people want a job. … They want what we want.”
U.S. Reps. Bob Brady, D-1, of Philadelphia, and Patrick Meehan, R-7, of Upper Darby, opposed the bill. Meehan said program reforms are necessary, but added that the legislation hurts those who need the most help.
About 47 million Americans receive food stamps, including 1.8 million Pennsylvanians.