The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote today on a Republican proposal to slash $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP. Critics say it will result in four million low-income seniors, veterans, children and their families losing food stamps benefits. The move comes at a time when Maine is among the states seeing the most widespread use of food stamps.
At the St. Mary’s food pantry in Lewiston, it’s just before closing time and several people have lined up to get emergency boxes of food. The number of items they get is determined by the number of people in the family.
Philly, who declined to give his last name, has three. He’s getting a pack of hot dogs, some pasta and a few other items that are packed by volunteers.
“I don’t have my foodstamps yet, so I had to come up here to do something so I can eat,” he says.
Philly says he also relies on the charity of several churches to help feed his family. It’s a story that’s not uncommon in Maine, where 250,000 people – or one in five residents – qualify for SNAP benefits, and where food pantries and soup kitchens help pick up the slack.
Kristen Walter is the director of St. Mary’s Nutrition Center that runs the largest pantry in the Lewiston-Auburn area five days a week.
“We see around an average of 375 families a week,” Walter says. “But what we really see as a notable trend is that it’s the last week before SNAP benefits are renewed are our busiest by far, and that’s because SNAP benefits don’t go far enough to support families in feeding their family for the month.”
In Maine, the average SNAP benefit is about $125 a month, according to Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s office. But according to a 2012 Gallup poll, Americans in general report spending about $150 on groceries each week.
Mary Turner of Auburn is a food stamp recipient who is disabled and says she often runs out of food. “By the end of the month you are scraping bottom,” she says.
Susan Sharon: “What are you eating?”
Mary Turner: “Lot of times, you know, tuna fish or cereal – sometimes you ain’t even got the milk for that, you know?”
Turner volunteers at St. Mary’s food pantry in return for a box of food each week. Without SNAP, and without the extra help, she says, she and her disabled husband and their young grandson would not have anything to eat. As it is, she says she occasionally skips meals in order to feed her grandson.
“To really be strapped, and at the end of the month not to know where your next meal is coming from, it’s real hard,” Turner says. “If you lose your SNAP, you’ve lost everything. So many children are going to go hungry.”
In a written statement criticizing the proposed cuts to the food stamp program, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree said she doesn’t know where additional money to assist hungry families will come from. She points out that the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland has seen demand rise 60 percent at its soup kitchen over the last three years.
Demand has also doubled for the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which supplies food pantries and soup kitchens across Maine. “Republicans say private charities will pick up the slack but they’ve already done everything they can do,” Pingree says. Kristen Walter of St. Mary’s Nutrition Center agrees.
“Charity is a really important piece of the puzzle, but we are already stretched very thin across the state and across the nation, trying to feed the people that need the extra assistance,” Walter says. “But, really, we need to have these more stable systems like SNAP that families can rely on so they aren’t in an emergency situation all the time.”
In addition to the food pantry, St. Mary’s also runs a dozen community gardens in Lewiston, helping more than 100 low-income families grow their own vegetables. The gardens are located near public housing complexes so residents can have easy access. But the gardens can’t be grown year-round in Maine where Walter says SNAP is still the most efficient method of distributing food to needy people.