Farm bill cuts food stamps, despite elevated demand in recent years

Written by Ben Allen, General Assignment Reporter | Feb 24, 2014 4:00 AM

(Harrisburg) -- President Obama recently signed a five-year version of the farm bill that cuts food stamp funding by $9 billion over the next ten yearsBut outside the debate over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, demand for food across the midstate remains nearly as high as it did during the peak of the recession in 2010.

For the past couple years, debate over the farm bill has gone back and forth in Congress.

Analysis by witf of 15 counties in the midstate generally shows a dramatic increase in demand for food stamps from 2009 to 2010, and steady growth into 2011.

By 2012, some counties saw a decrease, but in many cases, the demand has just plateaued and remained at elevated levels since.

In the middle of the debate are the people though, and the ones I talked to don’t even factor into the food stamps numbers.

They’re people like William, who works for the trucking company Transcorps in Harrisburg, but didn't want to provide his last name.

He's a single dad with a son, but says his hourly wage isn't enough to cover his bills.

So every couple weeks, he goes to the Cupboard at Calvary, at the Calvary United Methodist Church. It's across from Central Dauphin Middle School in the Colonial Park neighborhood outside Harrisburg.

"It makes a big difference, I’ve got a single 5 year old son, and it helps a lot."

His choice is a stark one, if he didn't have the Cupboard at Calvary.

“I probably would have to pick up another two part-time jobs to make ends meet."

In the gym filled with food and little else, with stories similar to Williams’s, about 100 people wait in simple chairs to hear their number get called.

William says without the help, his grocery bill would be another $100 to 150 a month, and food stamps aren’t an option.

"I make too much for that. At least that’s what the state of Pennsylvania says."

Every two weeks, people can take home six pounds of food per person in their household.

That includes fresh vegetables and fruit, salads, bread, cereal, snack bars, and other pantry staples.

Demand rises

The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank warehouse can feel like it goes on forever, and then some.

A couple of years ago, it doubled its capacity thanks to donations from corporations and others.

"Strategically we have been preparing for years. We thought with the government picture, with budget cutting that has been a part of the conversation now for at least 6, 7 years, we felt we would have to expand. So we did," says Joe Arthur,  Executive Director of the Food Bank, which serves 27 midstate counties, all the way up to the New York border.

The nonprofit supplies places like Calvary with some of the food to them pass on to their clients - that’s what they’re called by leaders in the system.

The distribution points often have their own food drives and fundraisers to pass out more food.

But Arthur says there's a limit to what they can do.

"The answer is not to keep building more and bigger food banks. The answer is to help grow the economy, create jobs, and let’s get people back in the grocery stores, buying their products, instead of going to food banks. And that’s really lost in the debate in DC."

Deborah Beck, who says she's been denied food stamps, has been picking up food at the Cupboard at Calvary on and off for about a year now.

"I was out of money and to make ends meet, I didn’t know how to get some groceries, and so I started looking up places in the area and this one has helped me."

Beck says she really likes that workers treat her with respect and don’t make her feel embarrassed for asking for help.

Some in Pennsylvania who do get food stamps may soon have to turn to food banks more, though.

The Coalition Against Hunger estimates 175,000 households in the state will lose at least part of the food stamp benefit under the new farm bill.

That concerns Joe Arthur with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.

He says after its latest expansion, cuts will only make things more difficult.

"You can’t keep building to the sky. There has to be a better answer."

Even after the latest farm bill, the debate will go on.

Democrats and Republicans in Washington have two different answers: many in the GOP want to cut the program to save money, while those on the left have asked to keep the program as is, or make just minor changes.

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