Cuts in food stamp program impacts Long Islanders

As a temporary increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits expired on Nov. 1 of last year, Long Island charities are being forced to bear the burden of nearly 300,000 people still struggling with hunger. 

SNAP is a government assistance program that helps low-income households pay for food. It was previously called the Food Stamp Program. The amount of SNAP food stamps a household gets depends on the household’s size, income, and expenses.

Over the last six years there has been a 205 percent increase in SNAP cases, according to Karen Garber, program coordinator at the Nassau County Department of Social Services, with the poverty level itself increasing to 11.9 percent in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The hunger assistance program for low-income individuals was granted an additional 13.6 percent in monthly benefits for SNAP users back in 2009 as a provision of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Those extra benefits expired on Oct. 31 of this year after Congress failed to reinstate them, much to the chagrin of Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-New York.

“I am disappointed,” she said in a statement via email. “Not only in that Congress allowed these cuts to happen in the first place, but that the House Majority has continued to push for a farm bill that would add billions more in cuts to this program.”

 “As a member of the Congressional Hunger Caucus, I have consistently supported measures both authorizing and extending funding levels for SNAP,” McCarthy continued.

Starting on Nov.  1, SNAP recipients saw a decrease of about $11 per month on average. In a household of four, the decrease averages $36 per month. The amount of money allotted per meal, per person dropped to $1.40, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The CBPP equates this cut to a family of four losing 21 meals a month.

The impact

The potential impact of these cuts is great on Long Island. There are between 150,000 and 160,000 residents currently on SNAP according to Michael Haynes, coordinator at the Harry Chapin Center for Public Policy, the advocacy wing of Long Island Cares, a food bank based in Hauppauge. The figure Haynes refers to does not include the near 130,000 estimated Long Islanders who are eligible for SNAP, but those who are not yet receiving benefits.

SNAP is not meant to be the sole source of food for beneficiaries. “It is designed to be supplemental; nobody can live off of it alone. They must be getting food from other sources, either they have other income or they’re going to the food pantry or soup kitchens or something,” said Jennifer Colletti, registered dietitian and a nutrition educator at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County. “The reality is that the current benefits [of $1.40 per meal] are too little.”

The average person spends $2.67 per meal, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“People are going to have to make these decisions, whether to feed their families or pay their mortgage,” said Colletti.

The increasing amount of people getting assistance from food banks has put a strain on the resources of local charities.

“The holiday times are especially stressful, but the thing is that hunger is a year-long struggle for people,” said Lisa Tobin, vice president of development at Mineola-based food bank Island Harvest.

Tobin says that her organization helps 300,000 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties annually, with an additional 30,000 people in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy. Since their inception in 1991, they have delivered over 71 million pounds of food.

Cuts will affect communities

“The thing that a lot of people who are not so sensitive to this issue don’t realize is that a cut in SNAP and other subsistence benefits impacts not only the recipients, but also their community, “said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead.

“It means we have less money to spend, which means that supermarkets and other facilities that accept food stamps will not have as much revenue, can’t hire as many people and keeps them [hungry people] farther and farther away from being able to recover in a timely manner,” said Levy.

 The average person spends $2.67 per meal, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The average person spends $2.67 per meal, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
LIR Photo Credit: Anthony Albright/Flickr

Money invested in SNAP returns to the private sector through the use of electronic benefit cards issued by the Department of Social Services that work in the same way as debit cards.

“If you live in a village where $100,000 a week is being spent in SNAP benefits, and suddenly there’s only $50,000, it means the other $50,000 is not going into the local economy,” said Levy.

Finding a solution

Levy added that a solution to the hunger crisis on Long Island will take time. However, there are many things that can be done now.

 “In the very short term, the SNAP benefits need to be restored to their prior inadequate levels, more economic development needs to be directed to suburban communities where assumptions are made that they’re prosperous like they were during “Leave it to Beaver’s” time in the fifties and sixties,” said Levy.

According to Michael Haynes, the best way to spur this change, especially the restoration of extended SNAP benefits, is to contact your local legislator through calls, letters, emails and even social media like Twitter and Facebook.

 “Use your voice. Like ‘Hey, I’m from an impacted community, this is helping a lot of people, this is helping me. Don’t cut this right now when it’s such a hard time’,” said Haynes.