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Food Stamp Cuts Cause Concern

Hartford high school freshman Connor Chandler accepts a donation from Betty Prime of Lebanon.
He was collection food items for the Listen pantry as part of a day of service.  11-2-2013 Medora Hebert

Hartford high school freshman Connor Chandler accepts a donation from Betty Prime of Lebanon. He was collection food items for the Listen pantry as part of a day of service. 11-2-2013 Medora Hebert

White River Junction — On the heels of a $5 billion cut to the federal food stamp program that took effect Friday — and with the threat of additional cuts from Congress on the horizon — Upper Valley residents closely acquainted with the safety net defended it despite acknowledging some of its flaws.

Last week’s cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps, resulted from the expiration of a temporary boost to the program’s benefits provided by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Households that rely on the program will see benefit cuts ranging from $11 to $36 a month, depending on the number of people relying on the food aid. One in 11 New Hampshire residents — or 120,000 Granite Staters — rely on food stamps, as do one in six Vermonters — or 102,000 people. Nationwide, 47.7 million Americans rely on food stamps, which amounts to one in 11 people.

Sara Kobylenski, executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, said the political debate over funding the program in Washington has proved frustrating. Rather than addressing systemic poverty, she said, politicians have focused on reforms such as a more stringent definition of “hunger” in order to bump down the number of food stamp enrollees.

“They’re not looking at how to improve the program or help people have better health by having better nutrition,” Kobylenski said.

Kobylenski added that access to healthy food and housing lowers the cost of health care, another hot topic in Congress these days. Despite the connection between poverty, nutrition and health care borne out by socioeconomic research, Kobylenski said, the debates in Washington don’t take into account the bigger picture.

“It’s kind of backwards to be wanting to talk about reforming the health care system and then wanting to limit peoples’ access to nutritional foods,” she said. “We have a fairly confused policy picture.”

The cuts to the food stamp program are coming as statewide food banks in the Twin States have reported major shortfalls in the amount of donated food. The Vermont Foodbank recently announced that food donations are down 18 percent this year, and the New Hampshire Foodbank is also reporting barer-than-usual food shelves due to the closure of supermarkets that were heavy donators.

The need for food assistance at the Haven, however, has been trending upward since the start of 2010, according to Kobylenski. She added that the number of people seeking assistance continues to rise each month, and has yet to plateau.

A Wilder resident and food stamp recipient named Deb, who was eating at the Listen community dinner in Hartford on Friday evening, said she is also on disability as a result of a car accident many years ago, but she said she still barely brings in enough income to survive.

Because of her disability, Deb is allowed to receive her benefits in cash. Last month, that money went to a security deposit and part of the first month’s rent for her apartment after she was forced to move, which left her with very little money for food.

“That’s why I’m glad for this,” Deb said of the community dinner. “I get one meal a day, but it’s a good meal.”

Kobylenski said the compromise described by Deb happens “not infrequently.

“And that means she’ll really be up the creek on food money for a whole month now, but at least she isn’t in the hole in housing money,” Kobylenski said. “It’s all about robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Leslie Donahue, a Lebanon resident who relied on food stamps for many years but is now off the program, was also at the community dinner. She said a person working for $10 an hour, 40 hours a week, would still need food assistance unless he or she has subsidized housing. Without it, she said, every paycheck goes to rent.

“That’s all you’re making, you’ve got nothing left,” Donahue said. “You have no gas money to get back to work next week, you have no food money, no clothing money, no shoe money, no pet food money — no money for nothing, just the rent.”

Donahue said that the system for food stamp benefits is deeply flawed, however, and insisted that those who are out to manipulate the system find ways to do so.

Meanwhile, she added, those who often need help the most are overlooked because they are in desperate straits and unable to identify all of the avenues of help available to them.

Donahue emphasized that it’s hard for New Hampshire residents in the Lebanon area to travel to Claremont, where the nearest Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Health and Human Services offices are located. She said that state officials should be canvassing low-income houses to see the living conditions of those who receive benefits.

“That’s a big issue,” she said. “Then they have you come in every now and then with paperwork to do. Those people, instead of sitting behind bulletproof plexiglass or whatever in those offices, they need to be pounding the pavement.”

According to Donahue, if the system was reformed to cut down on fraud and abuse, it would be under less pressure from Congress.

Frank Rothe, a Newbury, Vt., resident who runs two food shelves and a soup kitchen, said he doesn’t anticipate an influx of those needing assistance as their food stamp benefits are cut, but he said the drawback of funds would definitely have an impact.

Rothe said that abuse of the food stamp program “always gets blown out of proportion, but it’s there.

“What I do enables those who abuse the system, but I can’t let that stop me from what I’m doing to help people who need it,” said Rothe.

Rothe also stressed that what might seem like abuse to an outside observer could be something else entirely.

For instance, he said, someone might have $20 in their pocket with 10 days left in the month, and the most efficient use of that money would be to put $20 of gas in a car and drive to all the food shelves in the area collecting groceries.

“It seems like they’re playing the system, but they’re not,” he said. “They’re trying to survive.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.