After food stamps were reduced at the beginning of November, New York City food pantries and soup kitchens ran out of food, turned people away, and reduced the meals they handed out after experiencing a surge of demand, according to a new report from Food Bank For New York City.
The organization surveyed 522 food pantries and 138 soup kitchens and found that in November 2013, nearly half had either run out of food altogether or the particular kinds of food they need to make adequate meals. About a quarter had to turn people away since they didn’t have enough food, and another quarter had to reduce the number of meals they provided.
The survey asked them to compare conditions in November of last year to September and October, as well as to November 2012. Three-quarters saw a surge in visitors in November as compared to the months before, with 16 percent saying demand increased by more than 50 percent. Even more reported that the number of visitors climbed compared to the year before, making it likely that the uptick was about the food stamp cut, rather than seasonal changes. The report notes that “the SNAP cuts that took effect November 1 represent the biggest systemic factor reducing the food purchasing power of low-income people,” adding that “other factors that meaningfully affect emergency food program participation, like local unemployment, actually decreased in November 2013.”
In November, an increase in benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) that was included in the stimulus bill to respond to increased need during the recession was allowed to lapse, reducing benefits by about $9 per person per month, bringing the value down to an average of less than $1.40 per person for each meal. Food Bank For New York City reports that nearly 1.9 million New York City residents rely on food stamps, or one in five.
The experience in New York City has played out across the country. Mayors in different cities reported in December that the need for emergency food programs like pantries and soup kitchens had increased over the year before. In many of them, facilities turned people away due to a lack of resources, reduced the quantity of food they handed out, and reduced the number of visits they allowed each month. Even before the cut took place, private charities had warned they wouldn’t be able to pick up the slack, especially with charitable giving down in the aftermath of the recession.
But they may be asked to take on even more need, as Congress is poised to reduce SNAP benefits again. While Republicans had tried to cut the program by about $40 billion over five years, which would have kicked as many as 6 million people out of the program altogether, the bipartisan agreement seems to be settling on reducing the program by about $9 billion. That cut would impact about 1.7 million people, who would see an average decrease of $90 a month.
Yet if Congress is worried about reducing spending on the program, all it has to do is wait. It will fall by about half over the next decade as the economy improves and demand decreases. Cuts, on the other hand, can hurt not just those who rely on them to eat, but the economy, as every $5 spent on benefits generates $9 in economic activity.