Paul Jones brings bags of onions to restock bins at the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger food pantry, in Brooklyn, New York.
John Trotter for MSNBC

America’s new hunger crisis

Updated

In the 22 years that Swami Durga Das has managed New York’s River Fund Food Pantry, he has never seen hunger like this. Each Saturday, hundreds of hungry people descend on the pantry’s headquarters, an unassuming house on a residential block. The first people arrive around 2 am, forming a line that will wrap around the block before Das even opens his doors.

“Each week there’s new people,” Das told MSNBC.com. “The numbers have just skyrocketed.”

The new clients are diverse—working people, seniors, single mothers—but many of them share something in common: they represent the millions of Americans who fell victim to food insecurity when the Great Recession hit in 2009, but didn’t benefit from the economic recovery.

People walk in from Fulton Street and register their information in the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger office.
People walk in from Fulton Street and register their information in the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger office.
Photo by John Trotter for MSNBC

And the worst may be yet to come.

Food activists expect a “Hunger Cliff” on November 1, when automatic cuts to food stamp benefits will send a deluge of new hungry people to places like the River Fund Food Pantry, which are already strained.

“I thought we were busy now; I don’t know what it will be like then, because all of those people getting cut will definitely be accessing a pantry,” said Das. “It definitely will be a catastrophe.”

Those cuts were never supposed to be catastrophic; instead they were intended to gradually wind food stamp spending back down to normal levels, after boosting them in response to the 2008 financial collapse.

In the aftermath of that collapse, as employment stagnated and poverty increased, food stamp use exploded: From a little over 26 million users in 2007 to almost 47 million in 2012, an increase of 77%. At the same time, the average benefits per person rose from $96.18 to $133.41.

The 2009 stimulus bill raised the cap on food stamp benefits and pumped an additional $45.2 billion into the program over the next several years. But as provisions of the law expire, the program is scheduled to receive a $5 billion cut over the next year alone. Those cuts will reduce monthly benefits for every single food stamp recipient in the country; a family of four will receive $36 less per month, on average.

PHOTO ESSAY: One family, trying to keep food on the table

Billions more in cuts are scheduled to occur in the following two years, despite the fact that food insecurity in America has not even begun to return to pre-recession levels.

“I believe we have a hunger crisis,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, who sits on a House committee responsible for the food stamp program. “When 50 million people in the richest country on the planet are hungry, that’s a crisis.”

Program Director Tamara Dawson is on her feet all day, arriving at the office before the pantry opens to the public in the morning and staying well past closing.
Program Director Tamara Dawson is on her feet all day, arriving at the office before the pantry opens to the public in the morning and staying well past closing.
Photo by John Trotter for MSNBC
There’s little sign that McGovern’s colleagues in Congress will step in to stave off the crisis. In fact, some Republicans in Congress are pushing further cuts to the food stamp program as part of broader budget negotiations that could bump an additional 4 million people off of the food stamps rolls by the end of next year.

Those cuts may be a political winner for a few politicians, but for people like Winsome Stoner, they could be devastating.

Stoner was among those to start collecting food stamps during the post-crash era. She was unemployed at the time, and her husband’s salary as a security guard was not sufficient to pay the rent and feed their five children. Now working full-time at the Bed-Stuy Coalition Against Hunger food pantry in her neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Stoner still collects $640 per month in food stamps. Even that, combined with her income and her husband’s income, is not enough.

“It does cushion me a bit, it helps,” she said. “But we still run out of food by the end of the month. The middle, sometimes.”

When there’s no more food left, and no more money to buy new groceries, Stoner and her husband go to food pantries. At the Bud-Stuy pantry, the largest emergency food pantry in New York City, Stoner is both an employee and a regular client.

Visiting food pantries is a common practice for those who can’t stretch their food stamp money, also known as SNAP benefits, until the end of the month, according to Lisa Davis, senior vice president of government relations for the national food bank network Feeding America.

“Right now SNAP benefits are not overly generous,” Davis told MSNBC.com. “They average out to be about $1.49 per person per meal, and we know from our food banks that many of the clients coming to them are those who are receiving SNAP, but the benefits aren’t getting them through the entire month.”

For Stoner’s seven-person household, a monthly SNAP benefit of $640 per month translates to about $1 per meal, assuming everyone in the family eats three meals a day. Thanks to the expiration of the stimulus package’s food stamp provisions, Stoner has already received word that she might soon receive even less—and without knowing how big the cut will be, she’s terrified.

Winsome Stoner stocks the pantry's refrigerator.
Winsome Stoner stocks the pantry’s refrigerator. Both Stoner and her husband work, but they have to use the food pantry themselves because their incomes don’t cover all their family’s monthly food expenses.
Photo by John Trotter for MSNBC
“I don’t know if we’re going to get anything,” she said, her voice rising in agitation. “We’re not sure if we’re on it. I’m really worried, I really am.” 

“The death knell of the food stamp program”

On the same week that SNAP recipients are expected to lose $5 billion in benefits, members of both chambers of Congress are meeting to negotiate another potentially massive budget cut to the program.

This week, a committee will attempt to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the farm bill. The Senate version includes $4.1 billion in cuts to food stamps over the next decade; the House version includes no language related to food stamps, but House Republicans are expected to insist on including language from a separate House bill, which would slash $39 billion out of program over the course of the next ten years.

If House Republicans get their way and passed a $39 billion cut, it would cause nearly 4 million people to lose SNAP eligibility in 2014 alone, according to projections from the independent Congressional Budget Office. That cut would magnify the effect of the “Hunger Cliff” by orders of magnitude.

“I’m sad to say that we’re constantly putting out fires wherever Republicans try to light them,” said McGovern, D-Mass., a member of the Agriculture Committee and one of Congress’ leading advocates for more robust nutrition programs. As a member of the Farm Bill conference committee, McGovern will be conducting “damage control,” trying to limit the scope of the cuts.

McGovern believes that nutrition policy in the U.S. should be overhauled as part of a plan to end hunger entirely. But instead, “what we’re doing is body blocking this cut and that cut,” he said. Recalling that Barack Obama promised during his first presidential campaign to end child hunger by 2015, McGovern added, “we haven’t done a goddamn thing to do that, to be honest.”

The version of the Farm Bill which originally passed the House Agriculture Committee would have slashed $20.5 billion from the program over the next ten years. However, the bill narrowly failed on the House floor in June, thanks to both Democratic opposition and some Republican defectors who believed the food stamp cuts were not steep enough. So the House Republicans introduced another Farm Bill which, in the words of Rules Committee chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, “excludes some extraneous provisions”: namely, any language regarding food stamps.

Janet Major puts cranberry juice onto a shelf while helping people fulfill their food allotments.
Janet Major puts cranberry juice onto a shelf while helping people fulfill their food allotments.
Photo by John Trotter for MSNBC
During the July floor debate, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., described the revised Farm Bill bill as “the death knell of the food stamp program,” because it would allow Republicans to introduce even steeper cuts in a separate bill dealing only with food stamps. Sure enough, in August, Oklahoma Republican Frank Lucas introduced a new bill cutting $39 billion from SNAP, nearly twice as much as Republicans had originally planned to remove from the program. The bill passed with zero Democratic votes.

The new bill “never came to the Agriculture Committee,” said McGovern. “It went right from Eric Cantor’s basement to the Rules Committee.”

The White House has promised to veto any major cut to food stamps, but with even the Senate legislation cutting $4 billion out of the program, some kind of haircut looks inevitable. If that happens, then food pantries will once again be forced to pick up the slack as best they can. 

The Big Squeeze

When people don’t have the resources to feed themselves, and government welfare programs aren’t giving them the help they need, food banks are often the safety net of last resort. However, these non-profit charities are also dependent on government subsidies, and many of them are seeing their budgets shrink even as demand for their services reaches unprecedented levels. This holds especially true in low-income areas where food pantries rely on the donations of churchgoers who are themselves struggling, said Food Bank For New York City president and CEO Margarette Purvis.

Before checking out with her selections, Linda, center, looks over a blouse from the clothes rack, where patrons can find things to wear if they need them.
Before checking out with her selections, Linda, center, looks over a blouse from the clothes rack, where patrons can find things to wear if they need them.
Photo by John Trotter for MSNBC

“For programs that have lower capacity, more of them are closed, and they are closed primarily because they rely on faith-based resources,” Purvis told MSNBC.com. “They rely on the collection plate.”

At the same time, federal grants for food banks and pantries have taken a haircut. Although food stamps were left untouched by the across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester, food banks took a modest hit when TEFAP, a USDA program which subsidizes food storage and distribution for food banks, got trimmed by 5%. For the only food bank in the entire state of Alaska, that could not have come at a worse time.

“Even though it’s just a 5% cut, every little bit squeezes us, stretches us more and more,” said Mary Sullivan, director of advocacy and agency relations for the Food Bank of Alaska. “We’re already operating on a very narrow margin budget-wise, and we’re already leveraging so many dollars from the private sector to keep the program operating.”

Alaska covers the largest geographic area of any state in the country, and the Food Bank of Alaska delivers a lot of its food to remote, hard-to-reach areas. TEFAP distribution funds help subsidize the use of air freight and barge shipping to some of the most isolated places in the country. Despite continuing TEFAP assistance, “we continue to run the program at a deficit,” said Sullivan.

For food banks across the country, the government shutdown strained resources even further. As government workers temporarily lost their jobs and preschool-aged children lost the free meals which they would have received at their Head Start programs, pantries raced to make emergency food deliveries. Had the shutdown lasted into November, many food banks would have lost their TEFAP funding and may have had to stop making food deliveries entirely.

Reopening the government has relieved some of the strain on food banks and pantries, but not by much. The USDA still estimates that 49 million Americans are food insecure, and there are no indications that the number will come down anytime soon.

 

Watch All In with Chris Hayes cover the hunger crisis below:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece identified Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., as the House member who sponsored the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013. In fact, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., sponsored the bill; Southerland introduced an amendment cutting food stamps to the original Farm Bill.

Food Stamps

America's new hunger crisis

Updated