“…When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say,`Now is that political or social?’ He said, `I feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.” – Desmond Tutu
On any given day at Fishes & Loaves Pantry in Baltimore, a steady flow of men and women “shop” for food and household supplies.
There’s everything from canned goods to baby formula and laundry detergent on the shelves. But unlike a grocery store, items here are free.
“We follow the Biblical principle that you are your brother’s keeper,” said Rev. Andre Samuel, the pantry’s director. “And in these economically challenging times, people need help now more than ever.”
Fishes & Loaves opened its doors in 2010 and is part of the outreach ministry at Faith Tabernacle Church. Staffed by volunteers, the pantry provides food assistance to thousands of needy individuals and families annually.
But recent cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — commonly called food stamps — worries hunger advocates in Baltimore and nationwide; some 47 million Americans receive the benefits.
On November 1st, millions of SNAP recipients were affected by automatic cuts after a temporary provision from the Obama Administration’s 2009 stimulus package expired. For instance, a family of four receiving about $668 would now get $36 less in benefits each month.
Congress is also debating billions in potential long-term cuts to the USDA program, which is funded under the Farm Bill.
“We immediately saw an increase in our client population after the announcement,” said Rev. Samuel. “Some people told me the money has already been taken out of their benefits.”
Baltimore—which has about 600,000 residents– has more than 218,000 SNAP recipients, according to Maryland’s Department of Human Resources.
With so many people impacted by cuts, elected officials and others here have expressed dismay that local residents may face greater hardship.
Over the weekend, city officials and local non-profit and foundation leaders held a press conference at Apples & Oranges Fresh Market, a new grocery store owned by African-American entrepreneurs. Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake announced an extra $10,000 in funding for what’s known as “Bonus Bucks.”
SNAP recipients can get upwards of $10 in extra benefits weekly if they use their electronic swipe cards to purchase more fresh produce at city farmers’ markets.
Meanwhile, officials at the Maryland Food Bank—which supplies food to some 900 pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters in Baltimore and statewide—says its partners have begun to request more help for clients, too.
In the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2014, the non-profit organization distributed 8.8 million pounds of food -– up 77 percent from the same period last year.
“As fast as food comes into our doors, it’s back out. That’s been the story since the start of the recession, really,” said Kate Sam, a spokeswoman.
Research shows that SNAP recipients are racially and ethnically diverse, many have earned income, and the vast majority don’t receive cash welfare. They range from working families and children to disabled vets and the elderly.
To address the issue of senior hunger, the Maryland Food Bank developed the SNAP Outreach Program back in 2009.
Staffers visit residences and senior recreation centers, aiding seniors in applying for benefits—helpful to those who may have difficulty traveling to government offices.
“Since the program launched, we have helped more than 6,000 people receive more than $2 million in benefits,” said Sam, who said on average, the individuals they help receive approximately $55 per month in SNAP benefits.
“But there are many who only qualify for the base benefit of $16 per month,” she said. “These cuts will be especially difficult for them.”
In June, the Senate passed a Farm Bill which included $4.5 billion in cuts to the SNAP program; the House passed legislation in September with even steeper cuts, slashing $40 billion over 10 years.
Congressional committee members are now working on a compromise between the two different pieces of legislation.
Maryland Senators Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski were among some three-dozen Senate members who sent committee members a letter urging them to fight what they say are harmful cuts to SNAP.
The senators urged the negotiators to reject any possible eligibility changes that could, for instance, prevent hundreds of thousands of low-income children from accessing free school meals.
As the debate continues on Capitol Hill, the White House says President Obama proposed an extension of the pre-November adjustment in the 2014 budget request.
“These cuts come at a time when many hardworking American families are still struggling to make ends meet in the wake of the worst recession in decades,” said Kevin Lewis, a White House spokesman. He said that includes African-American households where nearly 25 percent deal with food insecurity and/or hunger issues.
“It is also imperative that Congress pass a long-term, comprehensive Food, Farm and Jobs Bill—legislation that will support a strong agricultural economy while ensuring healthy, affordable food for those who need it.”
Rev. Samuel says he invites politicians to visit pantries such as Fishes & Loaves to see the many Americans who need help putting food on the table.
“I’m not sure many of them understand the impact.”
Sam agrees: “We definitely need the public to contact their elected representatives and be voices for the hungry. Public officials need to know that these cuts are having serious effects for our most vulnerable citizens. “