Deeper cuts possible for food stamp benefits -- Gazette.Net







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As food stamp recipients adjust to recent cuts in their benefits, they face losing even more.

A bill before Congress, known as the farm bill, threatens to cut as much as $39 billion more from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, over the next 10 years. On Friday, recipients lost about 5 percent of their benefits when temporary funding for food stamps from the 2009 stimulus expired.

“It’s like a perfect storm,” Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin said of the potentially double cuts.

About 70,000 Montgomery County residents rely on the benefits from the $79 billion annual federal program to feed themselves and their families. More cuts could mean even less money for food each month and that has local leaders like Ervin concerned.

“We are very concerned about this because, on average these SNAP benefits, which aren’t very big anyway, really supplement what you already have to buy food,” she said.

The maximum benefit an individual can receive per month is $189. For a household of two people, the maximum benefit is $347, and for a family of eight it is $1,137, according to Brian Schleter, spokesman for the state’s Department of Human Resources.

Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring was active in establishing the county’s new Food Recovery Network, a program that works to provide the excess food from restaurants and grocery stores to local organization and families who need it.

But significant cuts in SNAP benefits could force the county to have to consider providing emergency food to SNAP participants, she said.

Exactly how much, if any, the federal farm bill will trim from the program remains to be seen. Congressional lawmakers began negotiations on the measure last week.

Versions passed by both the House and the Senate cut the nutrition program, but the two chambers differ vastly on the depth of those cuts.

The farm bill passed by House Republicans would cut $39 billion over 10 years, while the bill passed by the Democratically controlled Senate would cut one-tenth that amount, according to a report from the Congressional Budget Office.

Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D-Dist. 8) of Kensington, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, is among House Democrats hoping to protect the safety net from Republicans who have targeted the program as part of spending reductions.

“With the expiration of the extra SNAP benefits provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, I urge my colleagues negotiating on the farm bill to protect the program from additional deep cuts in any conference agreement,” Van Hollen said in a statement provided to The Gazette. “This vital food assistance program provides a safety-net for millions of Americans working hard at low wage jobs, children, seniors, and veterans, including over 780,000 Marylanders.”

Among the cuts in both bills are changes to how a household’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program benefits would affect its SNAP benefit calculation by setting a threshold, and changes that would end broad-based eligibility.

Van Hollen said the House bill would also eliminate benefits for 4 million Americans.

“It’s time to work together on a responsible, long-term farm bill that supports families and farmers, and promotes conservation in areas like the Chesapeake Bay,” he said.

While the farm bill looks to cut the nutrition programs, the House version would significantly increase funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, a federal program that supplements the diets of low-income needy persons, including elderly people, by providing them with emergency food and nutrition assistance.

The funds pay to purchase and ship food to the states, which is then distributed to individuals through local organizations, like Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg.

Over 10 years, the House bill would inject $333 million into the program, but the Senate bill would only provide $54 million more, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Jenna Umbriac, nutritional educator for Manna, said her organization is able to buy most of its frozen meats because of money it receives through the Emergency Food Assistance Program.

However, both bills would limit eligibility for the Commodity Supplement Food Program to just the elderly, who made up 97 percent of those served in fiscal 2011.

Currently the program, which provides food and administrative funds to states, also provides food to low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants and children.

With declining federal aid, Ervin said the obligation to feed those in need is falling onto on the shoulders of local government and the community. She expects local organizations will see more people turning to them for food.

“It’s a shame in our country that we have to really think hard about how to provide the most basic of all human needs and that is food,” Ervin said. “This is becoming a very, very serious problem locally.”

Staff Writer Sylvia Carignan contributed to this report.