Bay Area food banks struggled throughout the Great Recession and its aftermath to feed the region’s poor and hungry. Now they’re facing a new challenge: a new federal farm bill, passed by the House on Monday night and now awaiting a Senate vote, that will cut food-stamp funding by billions of dollars over the next decade.
Paul Ash, executive director of the SF-Marin Food Bank, says the cuts will likely force people to seek meals at local food pantries and soup kitchens supplied by the food banks. “This is going to stretch every food bank in the state,” he said. “It is all going to come down to our resources, and how many more people come to our food pantries.”
Kathy Jackson, chief of Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, echoed those concerns. “There’s no way in the world that the food bank can make up for the cuts we’re seeing. I wish we could.”
Jackson suggests that supporters of the cuts in food stamps (formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) probably think the nonprofit sector will be able to make up for the reductions. The farm bill does allocate some money to help feed the poor, providing a $200 million increase in funding to food banks.
The new cuts come on top of the expiration of a temporary increase in the food stamp program that was part of the 2009 federal stimulus expired. “This is kind of a double hit for people using food stamps,” Ash said.
The food-stamp reduction will affect people who are getting a higher level of benefits as part of a federal heating subsidy program. The California Department of Social Services says those who get more food assistance as part of their eligibility for the heating program will lose an average of $62 a month. About 320,000 recipients statewide will lose benefits, the department says.
Second Harvest’s Jackson calls the magnitude of the cut for those affected is “worrisome.”
And Ash of the SF-Marin Food bank says some families that depend on food stamps will have to purchase fewer fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It’s not necessarily intuitive that there would be a quality change for the food that people will be eating, but it really works out that way,” he said. “When you’re shopping on a really, really tight budget, you don’t tend to go to the produce isles or the dairy isle — you go toward the processed food aisle, where the cost per calorie is the cheapest.
The SF-Marin Food Bank fell far behind on its fundraising goals from September to November, but Ash says the food bank made up a lot of ground during its holiday fundraising drive. “We’re about $250,000 short of where we’d like to be, but the number was much bigger.”
Second Harvest also had a strong holiday donation and fundraising drive, and Jackson expects the food bank to come close to hitting its goal of $13.2 million. She suspects that the November cut to food stamps might have played a part in encouraging major donors to give.