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Long Islanders face food stamp cuts Friday

WASHINGTON -- Food stamp recipients on Long Island and across the nation will see about a 5 percent cut in benefits this Friday, and they face more and possibly deeper reductions as Congress begins to negotiate a final farm bill.

Some social services agencies said they expect the two rounds of cuts to cause hardship on Long Island, where the recession and superstorm Sandy combined to more than double the number of people receiving food stamps since 2008, to nearly 188,000.

"We have grave concerns for those who are most vulnerable and at risk," said Gwen O'Shea, executive director of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, a nonprofit planning and advocacy group.

"We know this is going to have an unbelievable impact on people trying to put their lives back together," she said.

The reduction that goes into effect Friday -- about $11 on an individual's $200 in monthly food stamp benefits -- comes as funding provided by the stimulus package Congress enacted in 2009 in response to the recession is expiring.

But deeper cuts in the future are likely as lawmakers from the Senate and House hold their first meeting Wednesday to begin negotiating a merger of their two sharply different versions of the farm bill that cut funds for food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The Democratic majority in the Senate passed a version that trims food stamp funding by $4.5 billion over 10 years.

The Republican-controlled House passed legislation cutting food stamps by $39 billion over the next decade and tightens eligibility rules.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the House bill would end food stamps for 3.8 million low-income people in 2014 and for an average of nearly 3 million people each year over the next decade.

Nassau County Social Services Commissioner John Imhof said, "Our concern always remains that reduction of SNAP benefits will place further strains on the food pantries and not-for-profit agencies that attempt to assist the poor."

Paule Pachter, executive director of Long Island Cares -- The Harry Chapin Food Bank, expressed the same concern. His network of 590 food pantries and kitchens serve about 65,000 people a week, or a total of 320,000 people a year.

"People don't understand -- certainly a lot of people in Congress -- that food banks are providing more food simply to sustain people, rather than years ago when we looked at it as emergency food," he said.

Long Island's representatives oppose the deep cuts approved by the House last month.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) broke ranks with his party to join Reps. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) in voting no.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a member of the Agriculture Committee, led an effort that produced a letter from New York Sen. Charles Schumer and 37 other senators urging the conference committee to reject "harmful cuts" and eligibility changes that would end food aid to families and the elderly.

The conference committee, composed of 29 House members and 12 senators, will convene Wednesday at 1 p.m. to reconcile three bills: the Senate measure and two House bills.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx), the only New Yorker on the conference committee, recognizes "we do have to balance that moral imperative with fiscal realities," an aide said.

But the aide said Engel believes "there is a difference between cutting around the edges and gutting the program."

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