Group shot of New Emmanuel volunteers (courtesy of Mary C. Curtis)

CHARLOTTE – Diane Byrd, 53, is making ends meet – barely. The in-home health care worker makes just over $400 every two weeks. She pays $470 in rent. And she has depended on the $200 in food stamps she receives, not for herself but for her son’s daughter, Zabria Sherrill, the 7-year-old granddaughter she is raising. “You’ve got your light bill, your gas bill. You’ve got to do the wash,” Byrd said on Friday. “If they cut back on what I get, I’ll have to scratch it out.” But she said she’s not sure how.

On Nov. 1, when Congress failed to act, the temporary increase in the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — established in the 2009 stimulus bill – expired. More than 47 million American saw their benefits go down, a cut of $5 billion in the next year; the Agriculture Department estimated that a family of four receiving food stamps would receive $36 less a month. In Congress, the discussion is about cutting SNAP benefits further as a means of reducing spending. The only disagreement between Democrats and Republicans is over how deep the cuts would be.

Agencies that are expected to fill in the gaps will continue to do the work they’ve been doing on the ground for years. “Since December of 2007, nothing has given these folks a break,” said Carol Hardison, chief executive officer for 13 years at Crisis Assistance Ministry in Charlotte. “This is just a worse version of bad,” she said of the SNAP cuts. The independent nonprofit, officially opened in 1975, is Mecklenburg County’s leading agency providing the working poor with emergency rent and utility assistance, clothing, household goods and furniture.

“Our job is to keep people from becoming homeless,” Hardison said. The agency reported that in last year more than 200 families sought help on an average day, usually an emergency stop — 70 percent who received assistance did not return during the year. On Friday, a total of 39 emergencies on the triage board needed immediate action. Most who come have jobs, and have been laid off or had hours or benefits cut, said Hardison, something that caused a break in the lives of people who were already living close to the edge.

“I don’t need a good business reason that explains why feeding hungry people is right,” Hardison said, “but for people who do” she pointed out the “multiplier effect on the economy” of food stamps spent in local markets and stores.

There is not a realization of the number of people in their homes who are hungry, she said. “Were there not other things on the list less vital to our neighbors than food to cut?”

Crisis Assistance offers a benefits bank to sign the eligible up for programs such as SNAP, as well as counseling, such as the budget classes Byrd is taking. When her granddaughter comes home from public school, “if the uniform is not real dirty I’ll fold it again,” Byrd said, to avoid the expense of putting in a load of laundry. She said she has learned how to make food money stretch for the healthy meals she must prepare – she has high blood pressure and her granddaughter has asthma.

The agency makes referrals to the nonprofit, nondenominational Loaves & Fishes, founded and operated by Charlotte-area religious congregations and community organizations. More than 2,000 volunteers join just eight full-time employees and two part-timers at Loaves & Fishes, and in order to access its Mecklenburg County network of food pantries a person or family needs to get a referral from a social worker, pastor, school guidance counselor, doctor’s office or a community agency such as a jobs program, the Salvation Army or Crisis Assistance Ministry.

“If they need food they are in a financial emergency,” said Beverly Howard, executive director of Loaves & Fishes, “and may need help with rent or utilities or other things.”

On Saturday, one of those reliable volunteers helped to organize the groceries and greeted many of the 17 who had appointments at the New Emmanuel Congregational United Church of Christ, one of 19 Loaves & Fishes food pantries in the Charlotte area, many based in places of worship. (The group has one warehouse and four trucks, used for deliveries.) After a career with a printing company and as a real estate broker, 80-year-old Elmorris James volunteers the two days a week the pantry distributes food at his church and keeps track of orders. “Companies are laying off folks, they are cutting food stamps, but people still have the same size families,” he said.

James said he keeps hearing the same thing, people saying, “they never thought that they would have to come to a place like this.” The team of volunteers at New Emmanuel – many of them retired – keeps coming back, said James, because “when we leave here, we know we’ve helped somebody.” He invited anyone considering cutting SNAP benefits to join them for a day.

Leslie Scates, 35, of Charlotte, who is pregnant, said on Saturday as she filled her cart at New Emmanuel that she was grateful for the food she uses to supplement help from SNAP for meals for her two daughters, 6 and 11, and the two god-daughters she babysits. The divorced mom is a disabled veteran and full-time student at Johnson C. Smith University, a junior working on a human services degree. She lives in Mosaic Village, a mixed-use apartment facility where university students live alongside members of the community. “With the pantries and my creative ways of making big meals, we’re making it,” she said.

Howard, who has been at Loaves & Fishes for 25 of the organization’s 38 years, said, “Part of the problem is letting people see who ‘those’ people are, and the fact is that sometimes they are your neighbors. … People have said, ‘When I get back on my feet I’d like to volunteer,’ and we’ve had some do that.”

The organization, with a budget of just under $2 million a year – about half to supplement food donations — fed 126,803 last year; 48 percent of their clients were children. Howard said they were mostly working families, many led by one parent or a grandparent raising the next generation. Howard estimated that just 2 percent of the budget comes from administering government grants. Most is from private individuals, places of worship and foundations. Donated food is essential, with a registered dietitian making sure clients receive balanced meals spread out over food groups.

“When most folks think of the hungry, they visualize a street person,” Howard said. She said people who come to Loaves & Fishes for help have a place to live, they have a kitchen. “Most of them either have been working or looking for work. … Twenty-five percent of our clients have never been to us before.”

“That just tells me we have a deepening need. The amount of people needing assistance has spread from one socioeconomic level to another. … The people that we help will be the last to experience the recovery.” In the past, it was easier to get a low-paying job with full benefits. “Now they’re lucky to piece together two part-time jobs with no benefits,” Howard said.

“There are some people who do not want to work, but that’s not the majority of the people,” she said. “That’s kind of saying that one out of every 7 Americans [the number estimated to be helped by food stamps] is just lazy.”

“Food stamps were never meant to feed a family,” Howard said. “It has always been meant to supplement a family’s need for food.” To illustrate what SNAP reductions would mean to a family of four, Howard bought $36 in groceries from a local market and took a picture of the cart full of bread, juice, pasta, cheese and other basic staples.

Even though everyone knew the cut was coming, returning to a level that was set before the recession, doesn’t make it any easier for people to give up, she said. A glitch-filled computer rollout of a new state system — NC FAST, or Families Accessing Services through Technology – had already caused delays for many North Carolinians who receive food stamps.

Now, shadowing the anxiety of those in need of food aid and the organizations that serve them is the uncertainty of what will happen next in Washington. “I do think that in some ways we are trying to balance the budget on the backs of poor people,” Howard said. “I wish they [lawmakers] could recognize how many benefits the rest of us get — unspoken — that they just take for granted.”

Follow Mary on Twitter @mcurtisnc3