After the hunger cliff, a stark Thanksgiving

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For the first time that she can remember, Naquashia LeGrand’s household may go without Thanksgiving dinner. Her family is just too broke, living too close to the margin, to pull off a big turkey dinner, she said.

“Always having Thanksgiving, that’s something my family always made sure we had,” said the New York native. “And just to hear that out of my grandmother’s mouth, it broke me.”

Welcome to the post-hunger cliff holiday season. At the beginning of November, the federal food stamps program was cut by $5 billion, meaning smaller benefit checks for the 47 million Americans who rely on the program. That cut has made this time of year more precarious than ever for millions of households.

Food pantries around the country are reporting a precipitous rise in the number of new visitors as people who were previously able to make do on food stamps get hit with cuts they can’t afford. It will be a long time before the effect of the cuts can be accurately quantified, but the raw numbers currently being reported are suggestive. Previously, many food stamp recipients were able to stretch their benefits until the third week of the month. Since November 1, they have been visting pantries earlier, and in greater numbers.

New York City’s largest emergency food pantry, the Brooklyn-based Bed Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, has reported a 35% increase in clients since November 1. The River Fund food pantry in Queens, which opens its doors to the community every Saturday, reported 824 client visits on one Saturday alone.

“Typically we would see between 600 and 700,” visitors, wrote Otto Starzmann, the pantry’s chief production officer, in an email. “So this is a marked uptick. For next Saturday, we’re bracing ourselves for even more people.”

In northern states, expenses generally increase during the winter months as heating bills rise. A 2010 survey [PDF] by the food bank network Feeding America found that nearly half of its clients—46%, to be exact—had at one point been forced to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities. In addition to losing food stamp money, about 300,000 families across the country have seen theirhome heating assistance get reduced as a result of the across-the-board federal budget cuts known as sequestration.

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