From Staff and Wire Reports
The Salem News
---- — The holiday season is always a busy time of year for food pantries, but this season has proven even more so than usual.
A Nov. 1 federal cut across the board made to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP benefits — also known as the food stamp program, has pulled the plug on food assistance for many, and food pantries like The Open Door based in Gloucester and Beverly Bootstraps are still trying to gauge the full impact on their supplies.
“We have already seen people coming in earlier in the month than they generally have come in the past,” said Julie LaFontaine, the executive director of The Open Door.
“We weren’t sure exactly how it would affect us, but benefits are loaded (onto recipients’ cards) at different times in the month, so we’re seeing more people face more dire needs sooner than in the past,” she added. “That program is largely elderly people, people on fixed income — and any cut to the food stamp program hits hardest at anyone living on the margins already.
“In some cases, whereas someone might have had come to us once a month, now they may have to come a second time,” LaFontaine continued. “It all adds up. The way these people make it is through a piece of this, a piece of that — now there’s another piece to that picture missing, and it’s making it harder and harder to make ends meet.”
“We’re beginning to track our clients’ response to this cut,” said Gus McDonald, food assistance supervisor at Beverly Bootstraps. “In the month of September we already had 18 new families, and in the month of October we had 36.”
As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that Congress passed in 2009, funding for the SNAP program and others was terminated, according to the Department of Transitional Assistance. States are unable to change the law, and 497,000 Massachusetts SNAP households will see a decrease in their food stamp benefits, according to the DTA.
Each reduction varies according to the number of people per household. A six-person household, for instance, has been hit with a cut of $53 per month, while a one-person home will notice an $11 decrease in monthly benefits.
“We exist because food stamps exist,” said Alyse Barbash, executive director at Haven from Hunger in Peabody. “If all of these food stamps are taken away over the next few years, then on a normal day, where I have 120 people lined up outside, I won’t be able to fill the need and my doors will close.”
Barbash said they need the food stamps, because her organization is just a supplement.
“I can’t give enough food to a family of four or five for two weeks,” she said.
McDonald feels these same burdens at Beverly Bootstraps.
“We already have families of four and five staying on with us rather than tapering off like they usually do,” said McDonald. “They have new burdens, and we’ve become part of a family’s plan to get through the tough parts of the month.”
In September, Beverly Bootstraps served 479 households and 1,156 individuals. They distributed 1,989 bags, which equals about 79,560 pounds of food. Only a month later, those numbers rose to 512 family homes, 1,271 individuals, 736 new visitors — the highest number tracked from July to October — and 2,208 circulated bags. McDonald expects these numbers to grow in the coming months as clients adjust to the declining benefits.
The SNAP cuts have happened and they’re real,” said Heather Johnston, director of donor relations at Beverly Bootstraps. “But there is the potential for families and individuals to suffer even further if the farm bill is passed. It is being proposed right now, and we won’t know this until January.”
LaFontaine noted that, even at their peaks, projects like The Open Door and others cannot be expected to meet the full force of the area’s growing needs.
“Community organizations are not designed to meet the full demand,” LaFontaine said. “Our works and the works of organizations like ours has to be combined with sustainable government programs that work together. That’s what provides that safety net.”
Material by Katherine Stephens of the Gordon College News Service was used in this report.
The Open Door Who: Serves residents of Gloucester, Rockport, Manchester, Essex and Ipswich. Where: 28 Emerson Ave., Gloucester. Pantry hours: Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 6 to 7 p.m.; and Tuesday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To learn how to register to receive food, donate or volunteer, visit http://www.foodpantry.org