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Food pantries strained by federal cuts

Karen Dewitt
A basket of food representing the $36 cut a month that food stamp recipients received beginning in early November.

With winter officially here, New York’s food pantries and soup kitchens are feeling the strain of feeding the hungry, especially after two key benefit cuts from the federal government.

The FOCUS food pantry, sponsored by six Albany area churches, is located just a block away from the state Capitol.

The pantry manager, Lorraine Houk, says the busy center is under more strain since the cuts to the federal food stamp program took effect in early November. She and her staff have prepared a basket of groceries that contains $36 worth of fresh produce, meat and canned goods, to demonstrate what the new cuts will mean to food stamp recipients.  

“We have egg noodles, we have some Cheerios, we have some ground turkey, tuna fish,” said Houk, who explained that the basket would last about two to three days.

Mark Dunlea is with Hunger Action Network, the lobby group for the state’s food pantries and soup kitchens. Dunlea says to make up for the cuts in the food stamp program that took effect in November, worth $332 million in New York, food pantries and soup kitchens would have to double their current services to make up for it. He says that just isn’t possible.

“It’s getting harder and harder for these families to stretch their food budget,” Dunlea said.

Dunlea says 20 percent of food pantry recipients are elderly, 40 percent hold some kind of job and are considered the working poor, and many are children or the disabled.   

“It just seems very unfortunate in a country as rich as we are, that we can’t make sure that everyone has enough to eat,” Dunlea said.

The people who come to the food pantry, known as guests, are normally limited to two allotments of food per month, and they receive an assortment of fresh vegetables, meat, pasta, rice and canned goods. But Houk says if they come back and say they are out of food before the end of the month, they are sometimes allowed a third portion. She says no one has to prove a lack of income to qualify for the food, but she says most of the guests are already on food stamps, now known as SNAP -- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Laura, who didn't want to give her last name, has been a regular guest lately at the food pantry. She says she’s feeling the effects of the $36 per month food stamp benefit cut, and wishes Congress could have found something else to cut.

“I don’t know how they expect people to live,” she said. “There’s other places they can get money from.”

Laura, who recently got laid off from a cleaning job, was on her third visit to the food pantry for the month. She said her fiancée, who she lives with, saw his food stamp benefits cut to $75 a month, and they were running out of food to eat.

“Sometimes I have to come here for a third visit, and she gives it to me,” Laura said.

Houk, who used to run a middle school cafeteria, is skilled at economizing. She says the food pantry and a related breakfast/soup kitchen rely on a combination of state funds, which they use to buy food from a regional food bank, donations and free USDA food. But she’s game to try to stretch things a little further.

“Well, we’re on a budget,” Houk paused. “I don’t know if we could double it, but we could certainly try.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently gave the state’s food pantries and soup kitchens an additional $4.5 million in funding, and urged New Yorkers to donate money.

The emergency food centers are likely to face even more demands, as federal unemployment checks for 1.3 million Americans, around 100,000 of them in New York, end for good near the end of December.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.