Area food banks see continued increase in food need

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

The loss in Arkansas of more than $52 million in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding on Nov. 1, 2013, was expected to reduce benefits to recipients of the government aid by about $10 per month per beneficiary. But how the cut would translate to impacts on food pantries and other social welfare non-profits was an unknown — until now.

Figures provided by the River Valley Regional Food Bank in Fort Smith show an increase in the number of individuals who have received assistance from the food bank and its partner agencies across the region, which could be tied to the SNAP cut.

According to Ken Kupchick, director of marketing and development at the River Valley Regional Food Bank, the number of families served from November to December increased by 6.54% last year, from 14,922 served in November to 15,899 served in December.

"In 2012, the increase from those months into December was only 1.6%," he said.

Kupchick said the increase in number of families served between November and December occurred in spite of several pantries being closed for three days (in addition to holidays) due to an ice storm.

Kupchick also reported that the amount of food distributed by the regional food bank was its highest ever in 2013, with 7.51 million pounds of food distributed in 2013, a 15.62% increase from 2012, when 6.496 million pounds of food was distributed by the regional food bank.

"The food bank has grown double in size since the start of the 2008 (Great Recession)," he said. "Performance this year represents the third consecutive year of double digit growth at the food bank."

In 2012, the agency reported an increase of 17.89% while in 2011, the food bank distributed 5.10 million pounds of food, 32.63% more than it distributed in 2010.

Julie Tann, food coordinator and assistant director of The Hope Center in Van Buren, said the cut in SNAP benefits — a result of an expiring of funding originally part of the 2009 federal stimulus package — has put a strain on her facility.

"I'd say we're spending close to $200 to $300 each week (on food)," she said. "You can buy by the pound. But even with the discount, it gets (expensive)."

In October, before the cuts went into affect, Tann said her organization served about 180 to 200 people. That number now hovers around 250, many of them elderly individuals who she said only get $21 per month in SNAP assistance and cannot make ends meet. For the families that come to The Hope Center, Tann said they may get more than $100 for a family, but that is still a low amount in order to feed a family.

"A lot of your single parents, male or female, if they have two or three children, their benefits have been going down $10, $20 or $30, depending on their benefits."

As a result, already cash-strapped food pantries are seeing a large number of repeat clients versus new clients, and they are doing their best to keep the doors open without turning anyone away.

"I want (people) to see the need because this is what I see every other Saturday morning (when we distribute food)," Tann said. "The need is there. You can't look at a baby and say, 'Sorry. I can't give you any groceries.'"

Likewise, she said the hunger crisis among the elderly has reached an alarming level at her pantry, with some elderly turning to certain animal foods that may be cheaper than foods made for human consumption. The problem is especially apparent among the members of the working poor who receive fewer benefits should their monthly salary increase.

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"The need is out there and it's really sad that they have to attempt to survive on $20 or $30 a month (in SNAP benefits)," she said. "And it's unfair that they can be deducted $8 because they got a $2 raise. To us, that's a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk. It's terrible that they are eating cat food and dog food for protein."

And while the numbers, at least on the surface, appear to point to an increased burden on food pantries due to the cuts to SNAP, Kupchick did urge caution.

"I am not comfortable in saying to what extent the 6.5% increase in families seeking help is attributable to the SNAP cutback, except to say we are hearing from all over the Feeding America network that the impact is there."

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