Food stamp recipients cope with new cuts

Thousands of Washington County residents will have to find ways to stretch their food dollars further this month.

Reduced food stamp benefits went into effect Friday, marking the second time this year assistance has decreased for the approximately 1.8 million Ohioans who use the program.

The 5.5 percent cuts means a family of four will see their benefits reduced by around $36 a month and a single individual receiving assistance will have benefits lessened by $11 a month, said Tom Ballengee, director of Washington County Job and Family Services.

The organization administers the food stamps, more formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to approximately 4,000 families consisting of around 8,000 individuals in Washington County.

“It’s not like people already get a whole lot of food benefits. Some people think that when people get food assistance it’s this huge dollar value. It really isn’t,” said Ballengee.

The average amount of assistance given to a Washington County household is $180 a month.

The most recent round of cuts marked the end of a temporary boost in the benefits that were enacted as part of the 2009 economic stimulus bill and it will likely have an impact on the way people shop and acquire food.

For starters, customers using food assistance benefits will likely have to re-budget their monthly shopping, speculated Warren’s IGA manager Mike Morrison.

“I think it’s going to force these customers to stretch their dollars as far as they can…budget more than they have. Instead of buying a name brand can of green beans, they might buy a value product,” he said.

Smart shopping is something food stamp recipients already do, said Ballengee.

“They might have to be a little more creative in what they buy,” he said.

Still, according to the national hunger-relief charity Feeding America, 90 percent of nationwide SNAP benefits are redeemed by the third week of the month.

Therefore many SNAP recipients have already been turning to food banks to supplement their nutritional needs.

“I already had three new families in today,” said Linda Allen, director of the Western Washington County Food Pantry in Vincent.

The recent change marks the second decrease of the year. In January, a recalculation of utility bills led to an average $50 per month reduction for hundreds of thousands of Ohio households.

Demand has stayed strong since that time, said Allen.

“People tell me they can’t stretch their food stamps far enough. Now with less food stamps and with the price of medicine and gas and everything going up, they just can’t make it,” she said.

At the Gospel Mission Food Pantry in Marietta, director Candy Waite said patrons have been sharing their concerns over the cuts.

“We have a lot of working class people that are on food stamps and they just can’t make it on that,” she said.

From September to October, the number of individuals patronizing the pantry rose by around 600 people and Waite expects that number to rise again in November.

And even more cuts could be in store for next year. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have proposed cuts to the 2013 Farm Bill that would further decrease benefits for hundreds of thousands of households nationwide.

Though the changes are being made specifically to the food assistance program, the implications will almost certainly roll over into other assistance programs, said Mary Bayless, senior case manager for Washington-Morgan Community Action.

“People are already having to make a choice between medical bills, utility, rent. Now that you’re taking away funding from food, they’ve got more choices to make,” she said.

She said demand for Community Action administered programs such at the Home Energy Assistance Program, Winter Crisis program and Senior Nutrition Program will likely increase.