Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit cuts have local effects

On any given Thursday night in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on Foster Avenue in State College, you can find a hodgepodge of individuals sharing a meal.

Some young, some old; some with jobs, some without; some with homes and others who make a bed where they can — you’ll find them breaking bread as a community.

That community may grow after Friday’s reduction in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as the food stamp program.

The 5 percent cut took effect after Congress allowed a temporary spending increase to lapse. The increase was part of the 2009 economic stimulus law. Some 47 million Americans are affected.

Ron Rovansek, one of the Community Café coordinators at St. Andrew’s, said he imagines that the café volunteers could see more residents in need of their services because of the change.

Mike Weaver, who was dining Thursday at the café, said he has been on food stamps since 1999, when he began living on his own.

The 34-year-old said the cuts to SNAP do have him concerned.

“It does upset me in a way,” Weaver said, but “I make them last.”

He said that a small cut may be something he could manage, but any larger cuts would hurt him. Weaver also said that while he thinks he can survive with the cutback, he is concerned that others in the community might not be able to keep food on the table.

In Centre County, 8,137 people were eligible for food stamps as of April, according to the state Department of Public Welfare website. That amounts to $926,348 a month in assistance coming into the county.

Across Pennsylvania, 1.8 million people were eligible for SNAP as of April, department data show. By comparison, California had 4.1 million participants, Texas 3.9 million and New York 3.1 million.

Friday’s SNAP cuts also have Robin Knepp worried.

Knepp supervises the Central Pennsylvania Community Action Center, a nonprofit agency that assists eligible families based on income. She said she expects an increase in community members who will need assistance from the center.

“People are used to having a certain amount to work with,” Knepp said of the SNAP benefits. “When you don’t have that amount any more, it’s hard to readjust.”

If the center finds it has more clients, it might have to cut back on how much food can be given to each family, she said, and would need to look to the community for increased donations.

Carol Pioli, executive director of the State College Food Bank, said she, too, expects the demand for other resources to go up because of the food stamp cuts.

“People are going to have to rely more and more on facilities like ours,” Pioli said.

She added that her organization serves a lot of households, some that may have one person and others that may have eight.

News of the budget cuts has made the food bank’s clients more aware of what’s going on, Pioli said.

But she said that while there may be a larger base of clients who need assistance, she isn’t concerned. There isn’t anyone in the community who would want to anyone to go hungry, she added.

“This community (will start) to pull together,” Pioli said. “This is the most generous community I’ve ever lived in.”

Because its program is not government-funded, Rovansek said, the St. Andrew’s Community Café also relies on donations.

He said that while the church’s weekly meals serve those in need of food, they are also often full of parishioners who come to eat and to donate to the cause.

“Ours is just a free meal for whoever needs them,” Rovansek said. “Our meal is open to anyone.”

In Washington, meanwhile, Senate and House negotiators met Wednesday to begin trying to resolve their differences on the farm bill, which awaits reauthorization and includes SNAP.

The most contentious part of the bill is the cuts to the food stamp program, The Associated Press reported.

The House bill would cut food stamps by $39 billion out of a projected $800 billion over 10 years and require able-bodied adults without children to work or volunteer 20 hours a week to get assistance. The Senate bill would cut $4.5 billion over 10 years and has no work requirement.

Only 15 Republicans voted against the cuts in the House bill, including two from Pennsylvania, Reps. Patrick Meehan and Mike Fitzpatrick.

“Many families throughout the 7th District rely on SNAP as an important safety net,” Meehan said in a statement. “There is no doubt that reforms are necessary to ensure SNAP dollars are used wisely and appropriately, though I’m concerned that this legislation would have hurt the very people who need assistance the most.”

SNAP assists those at or below 130 percent of the poverty level. A House budget committee report in March said that about 83 percent of the benefits go to households with a disabled person, a senior citizen or a child.

A Food and Nutrition Service report put the national average monthly assistance at $133 per person and $275 per household.

Food stamp recipient Weaver said he believes the cuts could increase the number of people turning to St. Andrews to find something to eat.

“If they’re going to cut anything, I don’t think they should cut food stamps,” he said. “If they cut back on food stamps, more people will come here and rely on free meals.”