Local food pantries — and many of our neighbors — need help.
The holiday season is always a busy time for food pantries. The combination of year-end expenses, holiday pressures, the arrival of the heating season, the loss of seasonal jobs and other factors make for peak demand during December and January.
While food pantries anticipate the increased demand, this holiday season brings never-before-seen problems for food shelves.
Cuts to the federal food stamp program took effect Nov. 1. Those cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, widely known as food stamps, began with the sunset of higher benefits that were part of the 2009 federal stimulus package meant to help Americans through the recession. Those cuts mean more people are relying on local food banks.
“We really noticed a difference when SNAP was cut,” Margaret Beuerlein, director if the Ticonderoga Food Pantry, said. “A lot of people depend on food stamps.”
Contrary to common belief, many of those relying on food stamps are working people. In fact, nearly 30 percent of the adults receiving SNAP benefits have jobs.
Also, food stamps benefits aren’t exactly big money. The average monthly SNAP benefit per person is $133.85, — less than $1.50 per person, per meal.
“People are really struggling to make ends meet,” Beuerlein said. “We’re seeing more and more people who have jobs, the working poor. The cost of living has gotten greater than many incomes in our area. People can’t live on minimum wage.”
The Ti Food Pantry has served an average of 100 families a month in 2013, but in October that number jumped to 178. Beuerlein expects it to grow further.
“That’s families,” she stressed. “That doesn’t count the children. I don’t know how many actual people are being served at the food pantry. I know it’s more than ever before.”
Ticonderoga’s food shelf is not alone. According to the Hunger Action Network of New York State, 81 percent of the state’s emergency food programs reported an increase in the number of individuals served in 2012, roughly one third of which were children.
“Currently, 1 in 6 residents of New York State struggle with food hardship,” said Sharon M. Smith, executive director of the Food Bank Association of New York State,. “And in light of the recent Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cuts, many more New Yorkers will need to turn to emergency feeding providers such as food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters served by the eight regional food banks throughout New York State.”
The demand on food pantries could continue to grow. Deeper cuts to SNAP over the next decade are possible as negotiations about the federal farm bill wear on in Washington. The federal program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The cuts to food stamps aren’t the only problem facing local food pantries. Food costs, including those to food pantries, are going up.
The Moriah Food pantry, like most food shelves in the area, purchases food from the Northeast Regional Food Bank. Increased prices there mean less food for the Moriah food shelf.
Sue Morse, director of the Moriah Food Pantry, said her agency is having trouble filling its shelves this holiday season.
“I’m asking residents to donate non-perishable food items, hold food drives and make cash donations,” Morse said. “Moriah residents have always come through for the pantry in the past and we know we can count on their caring and generosity to help once again.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also recognized the problems facing food pantries.
“With the combination of cuts to the federal SNAP program and an approaching winter season, it is more important than ever that New Yorkers support their local food bank,” Cuomo said. “New York’s food banks serve a variety of vulnerable populations across the state, including senior citizens, individuals with disabilities, and low income families — many of whom have already been impacted by federal SNAP reductions. By purchasing a few extra items to donate when grocery shopping, we can all do our part to put food on the table of those in need this holiday season.”
The good news is that North Country residents are a generous lot. Food drives are now planned in several communities. Help is on the way.
Let’s hope everyone does their part. While food pantries are seldom in the news, they provide a crucial, year-round service. They deserve and need our support.