By John Finnerty
The Daily Item
HARRISBURG — Pressure is building on Pennsylvania’s already strained food pantries, as many families losing part of their food stamp benefits are turning to charity for help.
About 1.8 million people in Pennsylvania — 14 percent of the state’s population — are affected by recent cuts in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.
In the Central Susquehanna Valley, 22,911 people receive SNAP benefits.
The cuts were triggered when the 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary boost in SNAP benefits expired on Nov. 1, meaning a benefit cut for nearly 48 million SNAP recipients. The vast majority, or 87 percent, live in households with children, seniors or people with disabilities.
“We’re trying to fill the gap, but it’s a struggle,” said Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.
The food bank feeds 54,000 people a week. That includes 20,000 families, Arthur said.
The number of people showing up for help has increased 10 percent over last year — and last year was a record year, Arthur said. Local food banks are just now starting to see the bump, he said, as desperate people try to compensate for the reductions in their SNAP benefits.
The challenge is that the federal support provided by SNAP is 20 times greater than the capacity of the nation’s food banks, Arthur said.
“A 5 percent cut to SNAP may not sound like much, but it’s as big as the entire charity food network,” Arthur said.
For a household of three — such as a mother with two children — the recent SNAP cuts translate into a loss of $29 a month. On top of that, a Republican farm bill proposes additional cuts that would boot 4 million people from the program, according to a report issued by the White House this week.
Replacing the federal aid with charity efforts creates problems, Arthur said.
The generosity of donors has increased, he said. In the first five months of the fiscal year, the food bank has gotten 2.5 million pounds more meat than it received last year — a 33 percent increase. There are 140 food drives going on right now in the food bank’s 27-county region, which stretches from the Maryland border to Williamsport.
But regional inequities are inevitable, as some local food banks are more successful in attracting donations than others. Food banks in poorer areas — where need may be greatest — struggle to pay their own bills while still trying to help their neediest neighbors.
At the Food for Families distribution center run by the St. Vincent DePaul Society in Johnstown, times are so tough the agency had to cut its staff hours by 30 percent.
“The shelves are pretty much empty right now,” because everything has been given away for Thanksgiving meals, said Jim Sestrich, director of Food for Families. “We’ve seen a significant increase in clients.”
The Food for Families program provides meals to 30 to 40 pantries and agencies in Cambria and Somerset counties. Those agencies feed about 1,500 people a week.
The food pantry struggles as charities compete for dollars that are harder to get from economically depressed communities.
“Tons of people are dipping into the well,” Sestrich said. “Our private donations are down 50 percent” from last year.
Corporate donations have dried up, too, he said. A meat processor used to give the agency turkeys to hand out for the holidays. This year, that gift didn’t come, Sestrich said.
The SNAP cuts have aggravated matters, he said. The food bank tried to brace for the drop in federal aid, but there’s not much they can do.
“It’s a vicious circle,” Sestrich said.