When the American Recovery Act, better known as the stimulus program, was enacted in 2009, benefits were increased for low income families who received food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The purpose of the increase was to bridge the gap between income and rising food and commodity prices.
However, Congress also specified that the increase was only temporary; and as of Nov. 1, the old rates went back into effect.
For families of four receiving the maximum benefit of $668 a month, the allocation was cut by $36 a month. Approximately 252,000 people in Maine, 19 percent of the population, are receiving SNAP benefits.
Clara Whitney, the communications and advocacy manager for the Good Shepherd Food Bank, said that the cutbacks will cost Maine’s SNAP recipients $2.8 million in benefits each month. “This will have a significant impact on low-income families, but it will also negatively impact Maine’s economy,” Whitney said. “That’s $2.3 million per month that would have been spent purchasing groceries in Maine.”
Good Shepherd, headquartered in Auburn, is one of the largest suppliers for food pantries in Maine, and Whitney said that another way to calculate the effect of the downsized budget is that Maine will lose “approximately 9.6 million meals that they would have paid for with SNAP dollars. We’re prepared to do everything we can to meet increased demand on the hunger relief network, but we don’t believe that charity alone will be able to fill this gap of 9.6 million meals.”
Al Hunt, the director of the Partnership Food Pantries of Guilford and Greenville, said he’s seen “a 25 percent increase in clients during the last month. We’re up 50 percent over a year ago. We set a new record on Nov. 8 — 132 families — and we’re getting people that we’ve never seen before. That’s scary. Just when you think things are turning around, it seems to get worse.”
Partnership Food Pantry in Guilford is also in the process of moving from the old Guilford Primary School to a former convenience store on Route 15. “I keep thinking we’re right on the edge of opening,” Hunt said. “We have to get the heating plant in, do some painting and other stuff. Then we have to figure out how to buy heating oil.”
Rev. Tom Bruce, pastor of the Living Word Assembly of God, has been running the Living Word Community Food Cupboard in Dover-Foxcroft since 1996. “I have had people call us who were concerned about the cutbacks,” said Bruce. “But things are already bad. We’re serving 175 to 190 families right now in 12 communities, and I ran out of food two weeks ago. We had to scrounge around to get items so people didn’t walk away completely empty-handed.”
Bruce said that retail stores and some factories have cut back several full-time jobs to part-time, putting even a greater strain on families’ food budgets. “I have one family with seven children,” Bruce said. “The husband works full-time, and they get $148 a month in food stamps. I don’t know how folks like that make it through the winter.”
The pastor said that Thanksgiving is an especially difficult time for poor families “but we work as hard as we can with the resources we have.”
Carolyn Gilbert is a volunteer at the Dexter Community Food Closet and said that she noticed that their two distributions in November have increased. “We serve an average about 45 to 50 families and there was a noticeable increase this month,” Gilbert said.
While they receive some items from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, Gilbert said that the distribution center often runs short of common items like peanut butter. “Then we have to buy it somewhere else, and it can be expensive,” she noted.
The Dexter Community Food Closet operates out of the New Hope Baptist Church on Spring Street, and Gilbert said that the volunteers “have been really good stewards of our inventory. We serve a wide variety of age groups, from infants to the elderly. We’re hoping things won’t be too bad this winter, but we’re prepared for it.”