In Tough Times, Food Stamps Leave Many Hungry

In Tough Times, Food Stamps Leave Many Hungry

August 30, 2011 at 10:16 am

William Henry expends a lot of energy to try to stretch his $50 in food stamps for an entire month. “It takes discipline to make sure that the money lasts when I go to the supermarket. I have to take my calculator,” he said.

But despite his best efforts, Henry does not always succeed. “Most months there are four weeks, and once in a while it’s five,” he said. “Sometimes in the fifth week the money runs out, and that’s when I go to a pantry.”

As monthly benefits run out, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers turn to food pantries. In New York City, about 1.8 million residents receive food stamps. Courtesy of Just Food

“Ending hunger is a huge priority, and charity cannot and should not shoulder the bulk of this burden,” Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York Coalition Against Hunger wrote in the coalition’s annual hunger survey.

A Shift in Responsibility

Some 2.3 million New Yorkers – or 12.4 percent of all state residents — faced food insecurity in 2007 to 2009, a sharp increase from the 9.4 percent in the three previous years, according to Hunger Action Network of New York State. In February the number of state residents receiving food stamps hit a record 3 million, a 65 percent increase over five years, the Daily News reported.

In the city, about 1.8 million residents get food stamps. The programs purchased more than $3.2 billion worth of food in the city in 2010, according to the Coalition Against Hunger.

While participation in the food stamp program — officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — has been increasing, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics from 2008 found that only 53 percent of all New Yorkers eligible for food stamps in 2008 actually got them. This – and the shortfall in benefits — compels some 2.3 million state residents to seek emergency food aid every year.

In its 2010 Hunger Survey, the Coalition Against Hunger reported that demand at the city’s more than 1,100 food pantries and soup kitchens in New York City increased 6.8 percent from 2009 to 2010, in addition to the 20.8 percent increase from 2008 to 2009. The fasting growing need for services came from families with children.

The need for private assistance has been growing since the Reagan administration, according to astudy by Beth Osborne Daponte of Yale University and Shannon Bade, a senior organizer at theOrganization of the North East in Chicago. It droppedtens of thousands of Americans from the food stamp program, a federal program administered by states and cities. Then the Clinton-era changes in the welfare system under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, tightened eligibility requirements and decreased the monthly benefits. Closer to home, in 1997, New York City began requiring anyone applying for food stamps be fingerprinted in order to prevent fraud.

All this forces some needy people them to turn to private groups. The increasing reliance on the non-profit organizations concerns many who run them.

“The myth we’re up against is civil society and nonprofits around the city can take over the burden from the public sector whose job it is,” said Michael Paone, the community organizer for the Coalition Against Hunger. He added that while private agencies have great intentions, they “lack agility” to deal with the city’s hunger problem.

“This is the wrong prescription for the problem,” said Paone. “It’s a much larger and deeper issue than just creating more food programs. Creating jobs and taking people out of poverty is the real solution.”

The Dollar Forty-Eight Menu

The maximum food stamp benefit for a family of four in fiscal year 2010 was $668 a month, with the average recipient now getting $133.80 – or about $4.46 a day. To receive benefits, a family’s income must be no higher than 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines, or roughly $2,389 a month for a family of four in most of the country.

A number of restrictions exist on what recipient can use their food stamps for — although the federal government recently rejectedbid by the Bloomberg administration to ban their use for the purchase of sugary soft drinks. The benefit cannot be used for food bought in restaurants, alcohol, non-food items, including soap, or food purchased hot.

Read the full post at Gotham Gazette.