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Proposed food stamp cuts would affect local families

Although DJ's income from work is enough to pay the bills, there's not always enough left over to provide quality meals for her family. That's where the federal government comes in.

The northern Todd County mother is one of more than 554,000 Minnesotans - about one in 10 - on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. She uses her monthly benefit, around $113, to help feed her two children who are still at home as she finalizes a divorce and tries to get back on her feet.

"It just kind of balances things out," said DJ, who asked to use an alias to protect her family's privacy.

Congress is considering slashing SNAP benefits as it debates the farm bill, a vast piece of legislation that authorizes agriculture policy and programs from crop subsidies to SNAP. Costing about $80 billion a year to provide food for 48 million Americans, SNAP represents approximately 80 percent of total farm bill spending. The House is proposing cutting SNAP funding by $40 billion over 10 years, while the Senate version calls for a $4 billion reduction.

The House SNAP cuts would be "disastrous to the program," said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of the Minnesota nonprofit Hunger Solutions.

"People who fall off the SNAP program, they end up visiting food shelves," she said. "That puts a lot more pressure on the local resources. I think we have to consider that when we look at what those cuts will mean."

Following a small automatic annual increase to reflect inflation on Oct. 1, funding for food support dropped once already after the boost included in the 2009 Recovery Act expired Nov. 1. That amounted to a $36 monthly drop for a family of four receiving the full benefit of $668.

Time is running out to work out differences between the House and Senate bills before the current legislation expires on Jan. 1. The highly partisan SNAP debate has contributed to the stalemate. Though top congressional negotiators, including Rep. Collin Peterson - the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee represents the Otter Tail County portion of Wadena - have reported progress over the past month, there are a dwindling number of days to reach an agreement before lawmakers return home for the holidays.

Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan, a House Agriculture Committee member whose district includes most of Wadena, refrained from making any predictions in an interview last month.

"The farm bill is symptomatic about what's wrong here in Washington," said Nolan, who lives on a farm in rural Crow Wing county. "I'm becoming more and more pessimistic each day."

In the spring, when the House Agriculture Committee debated amendments, Nolan sponsored a failed measure that would have restored SNAP funding. In November, he said he still believes strongly in the program.

"It's unfortunate we live in a society where people's incomes are so insufficient that they have to be subsidized with food programs," Nolan said. "The way to get people off food stamps is to create good paying jobs."

On the other side of the aisle, Republican House Speaker John Boehner voiced support for the SNAP cuts in a statement after the bill passed his chamber in July.

"Our farm and food stamp programs need reform," Boehner said. "The status quo is unacceptable, which is why I voted against most of the farm bills of the past two decades and supported this one."

The local impact

In 2012, Wadena County residents received more than $2.2 million in SNAP benefits. During and after the Great Recession, enrollment in the program ballooned from 653 households (830 adults and 475 children) in 2009 to 874 households (1,108 adults and 590 children) in 2013. That's 13.2 percent of county residents, who receive, on average, $109 per month.

"The increase had to do with people being out of work," said Paul Sailer, Wadena County Human Services director.

Participation has dropped slightly over the past four months, however.

Although the final bill might take a different form, the House bill proposes changes to program eligibility and would drop an estimated 16,700 households, about 32,000 people, from SNAP statewide, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

With the variety of possible changes being considered in House and Senate bills, Moriarty said, it's difficult to gauge who would be dropped or how much benefits would drop for people remaining on the program.

"It's not a simple math problem," she said.

And Sailer stressed the inherent complexity in determining SNAP benefits for residents, pointing to a variety of factors from household income and size to shelter expenses that are factored into the equation. Baseline support is on a graduated scale, ranging from $189 dollars for a single person to $1,137 for a family of eight, but other variables reduce the actual amount received.

"The intent of food stamps was never to replace a person's ability to provide for their needs," Sailer said. "It was a supplement."

That's how DJ said she views SNAP. She'd be able to feed her family without help, but the extra funds allows her to "improve the quality of what I feed them."

The proposed cut would force her to make sacrifices, she said, such as buying processed rather than fresh meat. "Those are the choices people will have to make."

DJ said gets upset when she sees people buying junk food with their EBT cards. "It's the people that abuse the program that hurt the program."

Rather than to reduce SNAP fraud - as some conservative lawmakers have suggested - the proposed cuts are primarily aimed at combatting the massive increase in the program, which has doubled nationwide over five years, Sailer said.

"We have minor fraud in this program ..." he said. "(Size) has more to do with why Congress is talking about cutting expenditures than fraud."

There's also very little fraud in Otter Tail County, said John Dinsmore, human services director.

"That's the exception rather than the rule," he said.

About 7.3 percent of county residents, 4,194 people, are enrolled in SNAP, with an average benefit of $101 per month.

"Eighty percent of them are working but because of their income level they are still eligible for food support," Dinsmore said. "Most people on food support are low-income families that are trying to make ends meet."

The reduction in benefits for families would also hit the local economy, particularly grocery stores, he said.

Sailer also noted the amplified economic impact on a regional center such as Wadena, where people from several counties spend their SNAP benefits. He said the county conducted a study 15 year ago, when there were three grocery stores, and determined one store could have survived on food support dollars alone.

"As they reduce the SNAP program, it will affect all of the people in the chain," Sailer said.

Food shelves affected

If the SNAP cuts materialize, local food shelves and other nonprofits could become busier.

Although well-intentioned, those already-strained programs only provide a small chunk of the food for hungry Americans, Moriarty said. Without SNAP money, she said, every church in the Minnesota would have to add $50,000 to its annual budget to be able to feed the hungry.

"This sort of support from the federal government is tremendously important," Moriarty said. "The nonprofit and faith community couldn't pick it up."

Given Minnesota's own tight budget, Sailer and Moriarty doubt the state government would step in to mitigate federal cuts.

"The kinds of things that would be created by that kind of hole would be far beyond the state's ability to respond."

Otter Tail County's food shelves are already "capping out," Dinsmore said. "There's a maximum demand and if we have (SNAP cuts) I expect we would have an increased demand for the food shelves."

Connie Warner, treasurer at the New York Mills food shelf, said she's not sure how the SNAP cuts would affect her program.

"There might be a small increase, but not a major increase because New York Mills has a fairly stable population," she said. Open the last Monday of each month, the food shelf served 482 households in 2012.

According to Hunger Solutions statistics, food shelves in Wadena County served roughly 8,000 people last year. The Wadena site, in an old warehouse on Aldrich Avenue SE, is open on Monday and Thursday mornings. A Verndale location opened in October, serving that community and Aldrich.

On Monday at the Wadena food shelf, several people filled shopping carts with cereal, canned goods and a few fresh items. As she loaded her car, a woman talked about how it's hard enough to get by even with SNAP benefits.

"They seem to take everything away the first sign of you getting back on your feet," she said.

Besides food shelves and SNAP, there's another program for local families looking for help. DJ is one of hundreds of people in the area who gets food from Ruby's Pantry. The program gets donations directly from manufacturers and delivers literally tons of food to 42 locations in Minnesota and Wisconsin, including at sites in Menagha and Perham. For $15, the organization provides 70 to 80 pounds of food each month to about 325 people in Perham and to about 250 in Menagha. There are no eligibility requirements.

"It's a variety of food, it's never the same each month," said Roxann Sahr, Ruby's Pantry program director.

She said the SNAP cuts would be especially tough on children, but she's confident the nonprofit sector will step up. "The government isn't always the best answer to help people who are struggling."