Cuts to food stamps could leave thousands hungry

‘Fill the hole’
Don Tibbs packs Thursday bags of food distributed to clients once a month at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank through the USDA’s commodities food program.

As Bill Byrd loaded a box of food staples into the back of a SUV, he ignored his aching body: a torn rotator cuff, arthritis in one shoulder and bad feet.


The Kenai Peninsula Food Bank provided Byrd, 67, with the box, which was filled with dry noodles, jugs of apple juice and canned beans among other things. Byrd stopped working in 2009 due to his health and relies on the food bank to feed his family, as well as neighbors.

He also receives help through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called food stamps. Both services are essential to his well-being, he said.

"The month before last they screwed up and cut my food stamps off for a month," Byrd said. "So, I had to use cash, and I don't have a lot."

Byrd is just one of an average of 5,294 recipients on the Kenai Peninsula receiving food stamps each month.

Many Peninsula residents who receive aid through SNAP also seek assistance from other local services to put food on their plates. But a Congressional battle over the farm bill potentially could cut millions to the safety net program, and local volunteers are uncertain whether they could fill the potential gap in services.

The 1,000-plus page farm bill affects hundreds of programs, some small, some big, at a high cost -- an estimated $97 billion per year. It is renewed every five years, helps shape the American diet and sets environmental policy on millions of acres of land, according to the USDA.

SNAP makes up about 80 percent of the cost of the bill, providing aid to some 46 million people, or one in seven Americans.

The Senate passed its version of the farm bill June 21 by a vote of 64-35, with most of the SNAP provisions intact. It tabled an effort by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul to cut food stamp spending and replace the program with block grants to states earlier in June.

The Senate bill represents incremental change at this point. It now heads to the House of Representatives for their consideration -- where it faces resistance from House Republicans.

As representatives plot their next move, food stamp recipients continue to rely on the program.

In 2011, a total of 86,044 Alaskans received food stamps, according to the USDA. The elderly, disabled adults and single parents account for the largest portion of long-term food stamp participants, according to the Alaska Food Coalition.

"We get people that have had accidents or can't work anymore; they're on unemployment," said Linda Swarner, Kenai Peninsula Food Bank's executive director. "They may be looking for a job, but there just isn't one, or they're not capable.

"They're being deprived of nutritious food."

The food bank provided commodities to an average of 698 families last year. They gave away nearly 942,000 pounds of food; approximately 1.5 pounds equals a meal.

Byrd said he hasn't reached the 60-month mark, the limit for receiving food stamps. On July 2, he will travel to Anchorage for an operation on his feet. After the operation, he plans to go back to work.

"I have to reapply for food stamps in October, so I'll see then," he said. "I'll get a job at a fast food restaurant; just do whatever I can."

Food stamps and the food bank are necessities, Byrd said, as he relies on both services.

Picking up a senior box -- handed out every Wednesday to eligible residents -- for two Kasilof residents, personal care assistant Rebecca Harris shared Byrd's sentiments. They heavily depend on both for their food, she said.

"They receive a small amount (of money) from food stamps, and you can't eat off that," Harris said.

All of the people Harris helps receive food stamps, she added.

The lack of people receiving boxes June 20 shocked her. Generally, it's impossible to find a parking space, she said.

"The food bank gives people good choices," she said. "They get fresh vegetables and bread."

Arguments for and against these services are varied. The opposition cites a growing need for austerity, people's increasing dependence on food stamps, food stamps used to purchase unhealthy foods and abuses by people who don't really need the services.

State Sen. Tom Wagoner, of Kenai, said he supports provisions to the farm bill that aid in reducing food stamp fraud.

Each year, the government bans about 1,000 retailers nationwide for food stamp fraud, according to the CATO Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Some retailers accept food stamps for cases of beer, cartons of cigarettes and big-ticket items.

A recently released study titled "Food Stamps, Follow the Money" raises questions about how much food producers, retailers and banks may be profiting from food stamps. Big manufactures, like Coca-Cola, Kraft and Mars benefit from the SNAP economy, and retailers like Walmart get a large cut of taxpayer dollars supporting the program, the report says.

The annual benefits issued to Kenai Peninsula residents totals $9.37 million.

Wagoner said the average monthly benefits they receive, $780,424, likely has little effect on the Peninsula's economy. Big box stores receive most of the money, not the local economy.

Country Foods in Kenai disagrees. The store tracks the amount of dollars it receives through food stamps. Store manager Chris Duncan has worked at Country Foods for 21 years. Food stamp use noticeably rose during the past five years, he said.

Without going into specifics, the dollar amount the store receives in food stamps, "it's a lot." Duncan estimates 15 to 20 percent of purchases are made with food stamps.

"It's helpful for our company, for the program to be out there," he said.

Swarner said SNAP is an economic driver, especially in small communities like Soldotna and Kenai. It gives people the ability to pay for their groceries rather than charge the cost and accumulate debt.

According to the Census Bureau, SNAP lifted 3.9 million Americans above the poverty line in 2010, including 1.7 million children and 280,000 seniors.

On average, food stamp households spend 25 percent of their income on food eaten at home, 2 percent on food away from home and 43 percent on housing, according to the USDA.

This may be why North Star Methodist Church in Nikiski, which operates a local food pantry, sees most people seeking food during the first week of the month.

"I think the amount of people we help depends on when residents receive their income or food stamps," said church member Bonita Miller.

Nikiski families are allowed one box of food per month. The church averages 45 boxes a month, and the staples included depend on funds and donations. Residents receive a large pack of meat, a loaf of bread and eggs -- if the church has the items, Miller said. Canned vegetables, fruits, more common food items are easier to come by.

The church purchases half of its food from the food bank and receives the other half from donations, which are collected from three locations in Nikiski.

If lawmakers decide to make major cuts to SNAP, the church's ability to help residents could be damaged. Since January, the church has seen an increase in the number of families seeking assistance.

"Well ... they just would get less food, because we don't have enough food to begin with," Miller said. "We'd still do what we could; we'd likely try and handle everything.

"We'll never shut our doors."

Swarner expects more residents would come to the food bank to get commodities and use the direct service program, the emergency food assistance program (TEFAP) and the commodity supplemental food program (CSFP). The USDA manages both programs.

It also would cause problems for the churches with food pantries, Swarner said.

"They'd see an influx of people ... they'd need to seek more donations from their parishioners or do more food drives," she said.

The Kenai United Methodist Church and the Salvation Army in Kenai operate food pantries, too.

Bread for the World, a 501 (c)(4) non-profit, estimates each church across the U.S. would be responsible for an additional $50,000 of food.

"It wouldn't be possible to fill the hole," Swarner said.

The House will take action on its version of the farm bill after July 11 when Congress returns from recess. A bipartisan compromise, with some cuts and additions, is likely the outcome.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at