On a recent weekday, Tyesha Murray visited the food pantry at the Schenectady Inner City Ministry and filled a plastic bag with loaves of bread.
“My main thought was that if we had bread, maybe I could make turkey sandwiches,” Murray said while she and her 4-year-old son waited for her number to be called so she could stock up on groceries.
Murray visits the food pantry once a month.
The 37-year-old Schenectady mother of six receives $500 each month from the federal food stamp program, but turns to the pantry when her monthly allotment has run out.
“It’s just not enough,” Murray said. “There are weeks when I’m scraping food together to make meals.”
Murray’s situation isn’t unusual. Gail VanValkenburgh, director of the SICM food program, said the majority of people receiving food from the pantry are also on food stamps.
“It’s hard to make ends meet just with food stamps,” VanValkenburgh said.
She noted that many of the food pantry’s clients are working, but at jobs that fail to lift them above the poverty line.
“The problem is the minimum wage,” she said.
The federal food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is now on the chopping block. A proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives would cut the SNAP program by $21 billion over the next decade, while a Senate proposal would cut the program by $4.1 billion over the next 10 years.
“We’re very worried,” said Mark Dunlea, executive director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State. “We want to make it easier for hungry people to get food stamps. We want to go in the opposite direction.”
SNAP already is bracing for a hit in November, when extra funding for the program provided in 2009 by the federal stimulus package expires. That infusion of funding increased the maximum monthly benefit by 13.6 percent — $24 a month for a one-person household, $44 a month for two people, $63 a month for three people and $80 a month for four people.
SNAP benefits have been adjusted for inflation since 2009, so when the stimulus funding expires, the drop for households will be between $20 and $30 a month for a family of three, according the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a policy and research organization in Washington.
“That’s a serious loss, especially in light of the very low amount of basic SNAP benefits,” the organization noted in a policy briefing. “Without the [stimulus package’s] boost, SNAP benefits average only about $1.40 per person per meal.”
According to the center, New York stands to lose $201 million, which will affect more than 3.1 million people, or 16 percent of the state’s population. Nationwide, about $3.3 billion will be cut from the program.
The larger cuts being proposed are part of the federal farm bill, which is where the food stamp program gets its funding. The farm bill is up for renewal and could be approved next week, if lawmakers can reach an agreement on how much to cut from SNAP, according to news reports.
The Hunger Action Network supports increasing food stamp benefits.
“It’s hard to feed yourself for $1.50,” Dunlea said. “Most families run out of food stamps by the 21st of the month.”
The number of people enrolled in the food stamp program in New York has increased dramatically, partly due to increased outreach, as advocacy groups have worked to get people who qualify for SNAP to participate, and partly due to increased need.
According to the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, the food stamp program served 3.1 million New Yorkers in March, compared to 3 million in March 2011 and 1.8 million in March 2007.
In March 2013, 24,562 Schenectady County residents were enrolled in SNAP, as were 36,779 Albany County residents, 9,726 Fulton County residents, 9,987 Montgomery County residents, 16,681 Saratoga County residents and 3,965 Schoharie County residents.
Food pantry demand surged in the wake of the recession that began in late December 2007 and has not declined.
“The need is still really high,” said Mark Quandt, executive director of the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, which provides food pantries throughout a 23-county area that includes the Capital Region. “Cutting food stamps is not going to help.”
Food stamps, Quandt said, are the “first line of defense” when it comes to combating hunger. If the federal cuts go through, food pantries and soup kitchens will be called upon to pick up the slack, he said.
Quandt said it’s not surprising food pantries and soup kitchens are still seeing high demand, even though the recession has ended.
“The people who are most affected by recessions are among the last to benefit [from economic recoveries,]” he said.
Every four years, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York participates in a national hunger study. The most recent study, in 2010, found 39 percent of households served by the organization’s emergency feeding programs receive food stamps. Quandt predicted the percentage would be higher in the study slated to be released in 2014.
About 80 percent of people who visit the food pantry run by the Mechanicville Area Community Services Center are on food stamps, according to Karen Follett, the organization’s family development resource coordinator.
“At the end of the month, we see a bigger turnout for the food pantry,” Follett said.
In fiscal year 2010-11, which ends in June, the SICM food pantry served 44,478 individuals; by the end of June, the organization expects to have served 52,750 individuals in fiscal year 2012-13, an 18-percent increase.
People visit the food pantry for different reasons, VanValkenburgh said. In many cases, a short-term emergency, such as high medical bills or the loss of a job, brings them to SICM, she said.
“Sometimes people are working two part-time jobs and just don’t have enough money,” she said.
In 2007 the SICM food pantry moved from its longtime home at First United Methodist Church in Schenectady to 839 Albany St. The newer space is bigger, which has enabled the food pantry to stay open longer and serve more people. In 2011, the organization began permitting people to visit the pantry once a month, where previously they were limited to six pantry visits per year.
People can apply for food stamps at the pantry, as the coordinator for the Nutrition Outreach and Education Program in Schenectady County, which seeks to increase participation in the food stamp program, has a desk there.
Murray said she visits the food pantry once a month. She works as a telemarketer, but said her minimum-wage salary doesn’t cover her expenses. In addition, her food stamp benefit is smaller than it used to be, even though she has more children and is now divorced.
“I’m not complaining [about the food stamp program] because, of course, I appreciate it,” Murray said, “but I can remember the days when I only had three children and I was getting at least $800 a month.”
Asked whether she was worried about the possibility of cuts to the food stamp program, Murray said, “It’s already been cut.”