Food pantries and soup kitchens, the social safety net's last strand, are reporting more visits, more demand and more need since federal food-stamp grants were cut in November.
And additional cuts could be on the way in 2014 when Congress resumes negotiations on the Farm Bill, legislation that funds the nearly $80 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, that helps feed more than 47.6 million Americans. The November cuts reflected the expiration of temporary SNAP increases put in place by Congress in 2009 in response to the recession.
"We're seeing somewhere between a 25 to 30 percent increase in the number of people who are coming to the three pantries that we operate, and we're hearing the same thing from some of our member agencies," said Paule Pachter, executive director of Long Island Cares, a food bank based in Hauppauge, with pantries in Freeport and Lindenhurst. "It's all related to people who are coming and saying they lost a percentage of their food-stamp benefit and need additional help."
Pantry visits generally increase during the holiday season, so "we'll have to see if there is the same kind of increase in January, but people are concerned, people are scared," Pachter said.
Food pantries across Long Island -- including St. Joseph's in Babylon, Pronto of Long Island in North Bay Shore and the JCC of the Greater Five Towns in Woodmere -- report families with reduced SNAP benefits coming in more often.
More people, "upset and disturbed" about the cuts, have been asking for more help, said Kathryn Raniere, outreach director at St. Joseph's. "Many families have kids, and I know many times when people come in to pick out food, they say their pantries are empty at home."
In November the pantry served a total of 138 families, including 228 children, she said.
"The big thing now is the increase in the number of times people return in the month," said Joy Meyer-Buckley, manager of the Helping Hand pantry in Centereach. "We can't always meet the demand. We have more seniors than ever, costs are going up, people are doing temporary jobs, and are hired and let go. It's scary."
3.1 million NYers affected
About 3.1 million New Yorkers have been affected by the SNAP benefit reductions, including an estimated 68,000 individuals in almost 41,000 households in Nassau County, and about 120,000 people in about 70,000 households in Suffolk County.
Statewide, benefit cuts have been estimated at more than $300 million. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced New York State would give $4.5 million in additional aid to 2,600 local food banks and pantries that receive some state aid and which have seen about a 13 percent increase over 2012 in the number of emergency meals distributed in 2013. Pressure on the pantries could increase even further as more and more people feel the effects of the expiration last week of federal long-term unemployment benefits.
An individual receiving the maximum SNAP benefit now gets $189 instead of $200 a month, and a family of five, for example, is allowed $750 instead of $793. Benefit levels are less when a household has income from work, pensions or other assistance programs.
Those receiving the benefits say they live on budgets where every dollar is accounted for and an $11 cut is significant.
Bill Collura, 64, lives in a Bohemia mobile home on $1,345 a month in Social Security and pension benefits, plus the money he gets from SNAP and some heating assistance. He said his food benefits have dropped from $200 a month when he started receiving them two years ago to $121, then $110. In January, assistance will be cut to $103, he said.
Things were better when Collura worked for 17 years as an assistant hardware store manager and almost 13 years on the maintenance staff in a local crisis center, he said. He's been looking, unsuccessfully, for a part-time job. "It becomes stressful, this whole thing, and they keep cutting the food stamps."
After rent, utilities and insurance on a 1991 Mercury that sits unused because Collura can't afford needed repairs, he has about $245 a month left, he said. That, plus the $110 in SNAP benefits, must cover his other expenses, including the nonfood items SNAP won't pay for, such as toiletries, detergent, furnishings and clothes.
Three of the five bulbs in his dining area light fixture have burned out but the spiral long-lasting fluorescent bulbs cost too much to replace, he said. Collura said he needs to buy Sheetrock, caulk and insulation to seal around a leaky door, but would have to cut out food to get them.
Food pantry visits
Sometimes he eats packaged ramen noodles for breakfast and lunch -- a carton of 12 costs only $2.79. Collura said he would go hungry without the supplies he gets from the St. John Nepomucene food pantry in Bohemia overseen by Sister Lisa Bergeron.
"There have been months I've had to go two or three times because I had no money left for food," Collura said. "Sometimes you call and they say 'fine, come on down,' but they don't always have what you need and they have to feed other people."
A real treat, he said, is when he is given a cooked frozen turkey or pork end, or some chocolate chip cookies or cocoa. "I enjoy that," he said.
Although the reduction of benefits has been painful for some families, the larger issues are unemployment, or underemployment, and low-wage jobs as well as the financial impacts of superstorm Sandy, pantry workers said.
"I opposed those cuts, especially when so many Long Islanders are still suffering from the effects of the recession and the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy," said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), one of only 15 Republicans to vote against a bill passed in September by the House to cut $40 billion in SNAP benefits over the next decade.
"That said, when our federal debt is at a record high, there is a need for SNAP reform," King added. "According to the GAO [Government Accountability Office], the amount of SNAP benefits paid in error is approximately $2.2 billion annually. Correcting such errors can result in cost-savings that can be passed on to recipients without adding to our deficit."
John Imhof, Nassau County Department of Social Services commissioner, said further reductions would hurt individuals and households. "Our concern remains that any reduction, regardless of the amount, will put a strain on the food pantries and not-for-profit agencies that attempt to assist the poor in supplementing access to sufficient food supplies."
New mission for food bank
Pachter of LI Cares said the food bank is seeing a shift in its mission in the current economy.
"Historically, we're an organization that helps people with emergency need," he said. "Over the last three or four years, we're seeing food banks supplying more of maintenance food and supplies even with SNAP and even before the current round of cutbacks."
Pachter said that an analysis based on a 2011 survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers federal funding for SNAP benefits, found that 320,000 Long Islanders -- 11.4 percent of the population -- were considered "food insecure," meaning they were not always confident of having sufficient money to buy enough food and were more likely to use pantries and soup kitchens.
Statistics for the first 10 months of 2013, the most recent available, showed that LI Cares and the 590 emergency food providers to which it distributed 8.5 million pounds of food and supplies last year had served, in total, an average of 148,000 people each month, Pachter said.
Pronto, a nonprofit community outreach center that also supplies furniture and clothing, has been serving about 65,000 people annually, including children, in recent years, said executive director Kelly Ann McLoughlin-Fisher.
"People are finding it harder to get back on their feet after setbacks," she said. "If they are a one-income family and God forbid they lose their job, or get hurt at work or have a medical setback, they come to us."
The increasing demand comes at a time of constricting donations. McLoughlin-Fisher said corporations were more selective in their charitable donations as government aid slows. "It's been about a 30 percent drop in total funding, both government and private over the last . . . 12 to 18 months," she said.
Along with Long Island Cares, Mineola-based Long Island Harvest is the island's other major food bank and distributor of emergency food assistance. It expects to have distributed more than 13 million pounds of product this year to food pantries, soup kitchens and other programs that feed those in need. The organization plans to reach out nationally to find new sources of food donations, in addition to the local markets, farmers and donors who contribute, said president and chief executive Randi Shubin Dresner.
"We are aggressively looking for new food donors and turning to Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger relief organization, based in Chicago," she said. "They help us source food from large food donors across the country."
Many pantries rely on the generosity of parishioners or local donors, but what they can give is sometimes nearly overtaken by demand.
"Keeping food on the shelves now is a big concern," said Stacey Feldman, a spokeswoman for the JCC of the Greater Five Towns. Its 860 individual pantry users, in more than 200 families, include a woman with four children whose husband left her, a man with a traumatic brain injury, impoverished young Orthodox Jewish families with several children and the housebound elderly, she said.
Mark Dunlea, executive director of the Hunger Action Network of NYS, a statewide network of food pantries, soup kitchens and low-income people, said its recent surveys of those receiving SNAP assistance in the state found that about half the households had at least one working adult, while a third received welfare assistance.
And there have been signs of growing food insecurity among those 60 and older. "In our NYS survey, we found 20 percent were seniors last year," Dunlea said. "The first time we did a survey in 1987 we found 4 percent of the clients were senior citizens, 60 and over."
Dunlea said that even before the cuts in SNAP, people were running out of money for food by the third week of the month. "Pantries already did not have enough to feed everybody, they already ration," he said, noting that statewide surveys had found a 60 percent increase in the number of people coming to food pantries and soup kitchens from 2007 through 2012, with a 13 percent increase on top of that in 2013.
At the Long Island Council of Churches pantry in Freeport, one of the Island's largest, manager Wally Merna said the facility helped supply 13,358 people in 5,714 families this year. That included 626 more individuals than in 2012.
"We have donors who used to be customers, and customers who used to be donors," he said. Only about a third of the families receive SNAP benefits, he said, because they have income above the strict income limits. "Some are working two jobs," he said. "It's really difficult for them to make any kind of progress."
Progress is hard
Working at a pantry can fill the work requirement to get public assistance, including for a 38-year-old single mother of four, who asked that her name be withheld to protect her children's privacy. She said the cut from $473 in monthly SNAP benefits to $360 meant she had to make food stretch further. But, she said, with three of her children getting breakfast and lunch at school, "I make it happen . . . Sales and coupons are my best friends."
Christopher Brown, 41, of Rockville Centre, works at the Freeport pantry and said he needed assistance after losing a job at a hospital in June. His $200 SNAP payment is down to $189 a month, he said. Despite the help Brown gets from pantries, he may have to skip meals by the end of the month.
"The last days of the month are very hard," Brown said, noting that the $11 SNAP cut means fewer meals each month.
Sister Bergeron started overseeing the St. John Nepomucene food pantry in October 2010, when it served 80-85 families, she said. Now the pantry serves about 135 families. More than half receive SNAP benefits, 30 percent of the families are led by single mothers, and 49 percent of the families include an adult with a job, Sister Bergeron said. Of the rest, many are 70 or older, or disabled.
That includes the Scudero family of Bohemia, where the mother, Carole, 73, has spent almost a decade helping to nurse first one son, now deceased, and now another who inherited a fatal degenerative condition, Huntington's disease, from their late father.
Her third son, Richard, is on disability for health problems, she said. She and her sons live in a mobile home in Bohemia and rely on Social Security, disability and SNAP benefits. Without the help of St. John Nepomucene's pantry, "we'd probably starve," Carole Scudero said.
"It's down to the point where every dollar is accounted for, and has to go somewhere," she said. "Every dollar that is cut out, it makes it that much more difficult."
The church tries to give out a monthly bag with seven to 10 days of food, Sister Bergeron said., and tells families "if you need to come every week, come every week."
"The very first corporal work of mercy is to feed those who are hungry, and the second is to give drink to the thirsty, and that is what the SNAP program should be doing," she said.