Less money for food

Hundreds of Peninsula residents to receive less help from food stamps

Worried phone calls started coming into the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank in September. People heard that food stamps were going to be cut and some worried about an already tenuous supply of food for their tables.


Starting Friday, hundreds on the Peninsula will see less aid from the federal government to help cover the growing costs of buying food through benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, historically known as food stamps.

“My food stamps are being cut, I don’t know what I’m going to do,’” is the mantra that Food Bank Executive Director Linda Swarner said she heard from those who called.

According to the Food Bank of Alaska, monthly benefits across the state will drop by anywhere from $13 to $65 per month depending on household size and geographic location.

In essence, the reduction takes the average federal contribution to a recipient’s meal from $1.50 to $1.40.

“It’s roughly 5 percent,” said Director of the Alaska Division of Public Assistance Ron Kreher. His department sent out “heads up” letters to everyone in the state receiving SNAP benefits.

The so-called cuts result from the end of a temporary benefit increase in the SNAP program that came with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in 2009. Congress last summer decided to let the increase expire on Nov. 1.

According to the USDA, the consumer price index for all food rose by 1.4 percent from July 2012 to June 2013. Costs have risen annually by 2 percent or more since 2011.

Aside from informing recipients of the reduction in benefits, it’s largely business as usual for Krener’s department. Those who call for help will get referred to community resources for additional nutritional help.

“We cannot give more benefits,” Kreher said.

With no additional money to aid those in need of fully balanced meals, Kreher and Swarner say that area emergency food pantries and meal programs are going to have to make up the difference.

Swarner asked the scores of partner agencies around the borough to plan for more calls for assistance. Already the food bank distributes 500,000 pounds of food from two USDA programs and two food bank programs with an additional 500,000 pounds of food donated from local grocery stores and food distributors, she said.

The food bank serves about 524 Peninsula residents who receive SNAP benefits.

“(They need) to be prepared for more people seeking more help,” she said of local churches and the Salvation Army “We live in a very giving and caring community.”

Along with SNAP, families can get one USDA commodities box each month. This month that box contains, for a family of between two and four people, one box of powdered mashed potatoes, two pounds of rice, one can each of refried beans, sliced peaches, sliced potatoes, vegetarian beans, sliced carrots and one whole chicken. There is also a smattering of milk, some fish and lunch meats to distribute.

Food stamps were never meant to be the main source of nutrition for people receiving them, Kreher said.

According to Map the Meal Gap, a perspective-building program from the nation’s largest hunger-relief charity Feeding America, the average cost of a meal on the Kenai Peninsula is $3.82. That average price leaves SNAP recipients responsible for $2.42 for their share of every nutritional meal they prepare and eat.

Its takes about 1.5 pounds of food per meal to feed a person, Swarner said. The 10-cent reduction in benefits will likely be made up in low cost carbohydrate-rich foods.

Salvation Army Envoy Craig Fanning said that most of the people his organization helps feed in the Central Peninsula with the USDA Emergency Food Assistance Program don’t prepare balanced meals to begin with, largely because of costs. They eat Top Ramen and extra macaroni and cheese, the cheap stuff that will fill up a family and doesn’t equal a good meal, he said.

“Cost cuts are in vegetables and fresh foods,” Fanning said.

The number of people Fanning’s organization helps each month with services varies from about 75 on the low end to 200 on the higher end. About 80 percent of those get some form of food aid. While he doesn’t expect the number of those in need to increase with SNAP reductions, he is prepared to increase the per individual help if necessary.

“We buy food on a regular basis,” Fanning said. “If we need to buy more food we will.”

To try and combat bad nutrition resulting from stretched food dollars, the food bank will prepare the healthiest food possible at their Fireweed Diner on Kalifornsky Beach Road, which serves a lunch meal daily to anyone who stops in. They may also run nutrition classes.

According to Map the Meal Gap, 13.2 percent of the population on Peninsula faces food insecurity. According to the USDA website, food insecurity is categorized at two levels, low security and very low security. Those are respectively defined as “reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet with little or no indication of reduced food intake” and “reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”

Jon Watson, pastor at Peninsula Christian Center, has seen diners at his Wednesday Night Meal double from 20 to 40 kids during the last six months. The meal is largely for kids and teens, but anyone is welcome he said.

“I don’t know that any of them are starving,” Watson said. “Many are from modest or impoverished homes.”

His Soldotna church is growing and the increase in diners at the Wednesday meal could be as much from that as growing food insecurities for local residents. To help contribute to those in need that do not attend his church, his congregation donates money from tithing to the food bank. Additionally, when one of his parishioners is in need of supplemental food, the church takes them over to the food bank and then pays for what they get.

“Someone has to pay for it,” Watson said. “This way we’re not a burden on the bank.”

Another way to look and the loss of supplemental food aid is in annual benefits on the Peninsula, which will be reduced by a minimum of $156 for a single person and $504 for a household of four in the borough on the east side of Cook Inlet; $240 for a single person and $780 for a family of four on the west side of the inlet.

Alaska differs in its benefit scales compared to the Lower 48; it has higher allotment rates, which are based on geographic location, Kreher said. The same basic income and expense qualifications in Soldotna and a distant village will draw different benefit amounts because of food transportation costs, he said.

With the temporary benefit increase expiring tomorrow, Congress on Wednesday began crafting a compromise to the next farm bill, which includes the possibility of additional cuts to the SNAP program.

Current farm and food stamp spending is around $97 billion a year, with about 80 percent of that money going to SNAP. The Senate bill would save about $1.8 billion a year, while the House bill would save around $5.2 billion a year.

The Senate farm bill would cut about $400 million from the almost $80 billion annual total by targeting states that give people very small amounts of heating assistance so they can automatically qualify for higher SNAP benefits. The House bill would cut $4 billion yearly by making similar changes and eliminating “broad-based categorical eligibility,” or automatic SNAP benefits when people are signed up for certain other programs. The House bill would also allow states to create new work requirements and end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive SNAP indefinitely.

Senate Democrats have opposed all of those major changes to the program.

According to Kreher, the additional cuts, if approved, will not largely impact Alaskans because the state has not implemented broad-based eligibility or connected SNAP eligibility to heating assistance. However, the state has been giving SNAP benefits to able-bodied adults without dependents and that would end.

“We’ve been very conservative in appropriations,” he said.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

Reach Greg Skinner at greg.skinner@peninsulaclarion.com.