SNAP Cuts Hit Today—and Food Banks Can't Make Up the Difference

Long food pantry lines are expected in the wake of a $4 billion cut to food stamps.

snap cuts food banks

A man eats his lunch in the soup kitchen. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

As full-time employees set aside money for Thanksgiving turkeys with all the fixings from today's freshly deposited paychecks, 47 million Americans who rely federal food assistance are dealing with the reality that there will be less to eat this month because of massive cuts. Today marks the beginning of a $4 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a reduction that hurts every single person who depends on this element of the social safety net. 

The conservative argument against federal food assistance is often followed by a plea to take charity local—for hungry people to turn to their churches, community centers, and food banks for support.

Those very charities report they are in crisis. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, the second largest organization of its kind in the country, serves 650 such “agencies” with food, handing out just over 1 million pounds per week.

“We’re expecting lines to get longer,” Jennifer Errico, director of communications, says in light of the across-the-board cuts that hit today. But they won’t be able to make up the difference for people who will be losing, on average, $29 per month for a family of three.

“We are maxed out. We have 800 locations on the waitlist to become distribution sites,” Errico said today, adding, “We’re giving out the maximum amount of food a week that we can.”

About 650,000 children in Los Angeles County are food insecure, according to a June report from Feeding America based on Census and U.S. Department of Agriculture data—more than in any other county in the country.

Even if the Food Bank were able to process those waitlisted sites—many of which are surely churches—the infrastructure of the organization, extensive as it is, wouldn’t be able to support them all. Agencies are slowly being added, Errico says, but a decision was made to fully supply fewer locations than water-down the amount of cans and grains and fresh produce at all giveaway locations by adding more en masse.   

“Even if we had 60 million pounds to share,” the amount the Food Bank expects to distribute this year, “to double our agencies we would have to hit 120 million pounds of food,” she says.

But the reality is that they have far less than that, and far less than what SNAP provides. Bread for the World President David Beckmann has written that all the food charities and churches provide the hungry amounts to about six percent of SNAP's contributions.

And with many food banks around the country still reporting lagging donations even in what’s officially considered a post-Great Recession year, supply was already lagging behind demand before the SNAP cuts hit.

Errico says that when today’s sunset date for the stimulus’s increase in funding to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program was determined in 2009, Democrats had an opportunistic vision for what the economy would look like in 2013.

“I think they truly believed that the economy was going to get better. And obviously it has not,” she says. “In L.A. County we still have a 10 percent unemployment rate, and that doesn’t count people who are employed and aren’t able to make ends meet.”

Food stamp recipients were regularly turning to food banks to help them get through the month even when they were receiving more in benefits. Typically, it wasn’t until the third week of the month that people on SNAP would start to show up, their monthly benefits dwindling.

“Now with the cut we’re expecting them to show up 2 weeks into the month or 2 and a half weeks into the month,” Errico says.

With Thanksgiving on the horizon, November marks the beginning of the busiest time of year for most food banks—both in terms of need from the poor and volunteers and donations.

For those who want to help, Errico says that cash donations go the farthest. A single dollar can be stretched into four meals.

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