Overburdened NJ Food Pantries Challenged to Feed More Hungry Clients

Hank Kalet | July 7, 2014


Fresh produce is an important part of a balanced diet for clients at food pantries.

Food pantries across the state, already seeing record numbers of clients, are bracing for another increase now that hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents are facing cuts in their federal food assistance benefits.

The change in eligibility, which will affect about a third of the families now receiving assistance, is the result of the cancellation of a utility allowance for about 159,000 New Jersey families.

The allowance let SNAP beneficiaries claim utility costs against their income and thus increase their benefits. It was scrapped July 1 and will hit individual families as their food stamp recertification occurs.

The likely result: more people visiting pantries and many needing to visit them more often, pantry organizers. It comes in the wake of a series of other cuts that are currently stressing the emergency food system.

The November expiration of a temporary expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the January expiration of extended unemployment benefits, along with residual effects of Hurricane Sandy, already have resulted in growing numbers seeking help from places like the CUMAC/ECHO in Paterson, the Center for Food Action in Bergen County, and smaller pantries around the state.

The cancellation of the allowance is expected to cost SNAP beneficiaries an average of about $90 per food stamp recipient household per month and could have been prevented, according to anti-hunger advocates. They blame the Christie administration for not taking advantage of -- either administratively or in conjunction with the Legislature -- a federal energy assistance program that would have qualified the SNAP families for the energy allowance.

Instead, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a budget provision that would have increased access to the federal Low-Income Heating and Electricity Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and has taken no action on other possible solutions.

The provision, written by Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), called for every family that currently receives some aid from LIHEAP to have their stipends increased to at least $21 annually so that they could qualify for the energy allowance under SNAP. The resolution was not attached to specific spending, but called for the expanded LIHEAP program to be paid for through unspent federal and state utility aid. LIHEAP funding is given to states as a block grant and states administer the grants and set parameters for distribution. Many states have been making nominal payments to people living in rental facilities whose rents cover their utility costs.

A companion bill (A-2956/S-1893] passed both houses of the Legislature and awaits action by the governor. It passed 36-1 in the Senate and 60-13 in the Assembly and was sponsored by Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) and Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) in the upper chamber and Gabriela Mosquera (D-Gloucester), Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), Gary Schaer (D-Bergen), Mila Jasey (D-Essex), and Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) in the lower.

A Growing Hunger

Advocates say soup kitchens, food pantries, and food banks around the state are expecting more requests at a time when food agencies already are dealing with increased need.

“There is no way for us to brace for this,” said Adele LaTourette of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, who also serves as the legislative director for the Center for Food Action in Bergen County. CFA has seven pantries throughout the county and an eighth in Passaic County.

“That is the issue. The bracing is -- well, we don’t have the capacity to brace. Pantries and food banks and soup kitchens do the best to make up for the loss (in government aid). But that will be an enormous task and I am not sure it is a manageable task.”

The LIHEAP language in the budget and the LIHEAP bill were responses to changes in federal SNAP eligibility rules. Eligibility for the allowance -- sometimes referred to as “heat and eat” -- was tightened when the federal farm bill was passed earlier this year. Previously, states could provide nominal utility aid under LIHEAP to low-income renters who paid their utility costs in their rent.

The eligibility changes are likely to hit those in subsidized housing hardest – mostly seniors and the disabled -- because their utility costs generally are included in their rent payments. In the past, the state provided from $1 to $5 in annual aid to these households, which qualified them for the utility allowance. The allowance is similar to a tax deduction -- it lowers an applicant’s income level and the lower income is then used to judge eligibility and the level of benefits.

About 15 states -- including New Jersey -- took advantage of the provision, paying out between $1 and $5 per household. The farm bill increased the LIHEAP minimums to $20 a year, which is expected to affect an estimated 850,000 households nationally, according to budget watchdog groups.

There were 438,816 households and 876,323 New Jerseyans, 410,437 of whom are children, enrolled in SNAP in April, according to state figures. New Jersey has one of the largest populations of SNAP recipients in the country.

Expanding the stipend would cost between $3 million and $7 million, most of which could be covered by using unspent federal block grants , according to the fiscal statement attached to A-2956, “suggesting that between 150,000 and 350,000 households may be affected.” Advocacy groups say the cuts are likely to affect 159,000 households, though that is just an estimate. There are no estimates for how many individuals will be affected, though advocates say that a third of all beneficiaries may see some kind of cut -- or nearly 300,000 New Jersey residents. About 40 percent of SNAP recipients live in Essex, Hudson, and Passaic counties.

Senate Democrats say that seven states, including Pennsylvania and New York, have expanded SNAP stipends to ensure that benefits will not be cut.

The governor’s veto statement did not rule out expansion of the program. Instead, it called the language in the budget “unnecessary to effectuate the proposed change.”

However, the statement also said “it would be inappropriate to restrict prematurely and improperly the Administration’s ability to administer the underlying programs in the manner proposed in this language.” The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the veto or the bill.

The latest benefit reductions will only exacerbate an already growing problem, advocates said. The temporary increase in SNAP benefits authorized by the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus bill, expired in November and resulted in a cut of about $90 million total in SNAP benefits in New Jersey. That cut reduced the average monthly benefit per person in New Jersey from $150 to $121 and the average meal from $1.50 to $1.35, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank.

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey conducted a voluntary survey this spring to see whether the SNAP cuts -- and the cutoff of extended unemployment benefits -- were having an impact on its approximately 1,000 member food banks. The survey, which was voluntary, found that most -- 85 percent of the 190 pantries that responded -- have been experiencing increased need, with many cutting back on the hours they are open and the amount and kind of food they provide.

“This is how (food banks around the state) coped already with the influx,” said Diane Riley, legislative director for the CFBNJ. “How are they going to cope now with another cut? It is not going to be good for the people who are coming in” to the food banks and pantries.

Struggling to Meet Demand

The Rev. Pat Bruger, executive director of CUMAC in Paterson, said the agency has been struggling to keep up with growing demand.

“We have had the largest month in our history every month this year, including 2010,” which was the height of the recession, she said. People are coming in for the first time because they have lost or seen a reduction in food, but CUMAC (officially the Center of United Methodist Aid to the Community/Ecumenically Concerned Helping Others) is also seeing people who need significantly more assistance. Many have been coming in occasionally, when they needed help making it to the end of the month. They are now visiting the pantry more frequently because of the loss of SNAP resources.

CUMAC is seeing on average about 3,000 people a month, though there have been spikes of as many as 3,600 in a month, Bruger said.

“If you go back even five years, we never had a month over 3,000,” she said. “A high month was the 2,500 range. Now it can be 3,600 or more.”

Sister Linda Klaiss of the Pierre Toussaint Food Pantry in Newark, which is run by St. Benedict Parish, reports similar issues.

“It used to be that pantries were emergency assistance, but now we are supplemental assistance,” she said. “For those of us in church-based organizations, so much is left to churches to pick up from the government.”

Toussaint pantry has a support group for families experiencing food security issues. She said the families who attend tell similar stories.

“These are people who are working and can’t make it,” she said.

She tells the story of a senior citizen who rents a studio apartment. His rent and other expenses keep going up, but his SNAP benefits have been cut. That has left him to cut back on food and to rely on the pantry for the first time.

Hungry and Cold

Bruger and Klaiss both said their experiences this winter were unusual and demonstrated how much people are struggling. During harsh winters, like this past one, pantries usually see a decrease in traffic as people stay indoors and make due. However, the need continued to grow this winter -- which they attribute to the first round of SNAP cuts and the loss of unemployment benefits.

“As bad as this winter was, when people are willing to stand out in cold and snow – we don’t have a big space – when people are willing to stand in line for an hour for a bag of food, you know they need it,” Klaiss said.

Patricia Espy, executive director for the Center for Food Action in Bergen County, said the first round of cuts meant that food aid was no longer stretching through the end of the month. That meant more people coming into CFA’s eight pantries more frequently. The CFA pantries provided about 56,000 food packages a year until “just a couple of years ago,” she said. This year it expects to provide 71,000.

She said the pantries are seeing more people who are “doing sustained feeding,” meaning they are relying on the emergency food system to do more than provide occasional help, because the food budget is the “thing that has most leeway.” Rent and utilities, for instance, must be paid on specific days. Food budgets, however, can be adjusted week to week. This has led to a growth in the number of clients and the amount of food they need.

Less to Go Around

CFA’s eight locations have all seen increasing need -- and have experienced a shortage of food.

“For the first time, we have had to scale back on the maximum number of people we could serve on any given day, and we’ve had to cut back on items,” Espy said.

Other pantries report having to make similar efforts -- capping the number of clients, cutting back on hours or shrinking the size of their food allotment.

“I’m often apologizing when I give (clients) the bag (of food),” Klaiss said. “Sometimes we give a half bag, or three quarters of a bag, because that is what we have to give. You only get so much from government commodities (surplus food purchased by the federal government and distributed to the poor) and we have to depend on donations to supplement.”

Democrats have made efforts to address the eligibility rules, but they remain on the backburner until the governor acts.

Ray Castro, senior policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective, said the language in the governor’s veto message was important because it did not rule out possible action. Still, the governor has had the ability to do this administratively and has not, and he has yet to sign the LIHEAP bill, Castro noted. He added that the governor has known this was coming since passage of the Farm Bill in February.

NJPP estimates expanding LIHEAP aid would cost about $3.2 million, though it is unclear whether the money would come from the state or from unpsent LIHEAP funding. That would prevent about $170 million in food assistance from being cut.

“It is a small amount that has to go into the LIHEAP program,” said Serena Rice, the executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. The big pot of money is the SNAP benefits that come back. To reject this federal money for a small amount doesn’t make sense.”

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