Food stamp cuts could send more to food shelves

Published 9:27 am Monday, September 16, 2013

ST. CLOUD — Officials and advocates for the needy in central Minnesota say cuts to the food stamp program could have harsh effects on many low-income families, while area food shelves and other groups say they expect to see an increase in the number of people they serve.

The federal farm bill, which funds food stamps and nutrition programs, will expire at the end of the month if Congress fails to renew it. In July, the House passed a new version of the bill, but it didn’t include food stamps and the bill is now stalled. An earlier, unsuccessful, House bill included more than $20 billion in cuts, while a Senate version passed in May proposes $4 billion in cuts.

Officials in Sterns, Sherburne and Benton counties say cuts to the food stamp program mean more families may have to rely on food shelves, while other programs, such as housing and energy assistance programs, could see an increase in the people they serve if families have to divert funds toward food.

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Enrollment in the food stamp program in Stearns county more than doubled from 2009 to 2012. The number of people using food stamps in Benton County jumped 156 percent. And Sherburne County saw the number of households enrolled increase by 167 percent during the same period.

County officials cite the recession, eligibility changes and a statewide push to enroll eligible people as reasons for the increase.

Benton County Human Services financial supervisor Janel Sczublewski said if cuts to the food stamp program become reality, the county can’t do anything financially to supplement assistance for people who will see a cut in benefits.

Tri-County Action Program officials said a decrease in federal food assistance would further drain resources available to low-income people.

“Do you spend money on medicine, medical care, prescriptions or food?” asked Patrick Shepard, family resources director for Tri-CAP. “Do I pay rent or do I buy food? Can I provide basic needs for my family with the reduction in SNAP benefits?”

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud, which operates a food shelf and nutrition education program, expects the proposed cuts would mean more people in need, said executive director Steve Besnahan. The Salvation Army of St. Cloud also expects to see an increase in demand.

“We would take it as we see it,” she said. “We might do some more appeals to the community. We would stretch our dollar as far as possible so we’d be able to help the people in need.”

The proposed changes in the House included mandatory drugs tests for food stamp recipients and employment requirements, on top of the $20 billion in cuts.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann believes individuals who need and qualify for food assistance should continue to receive help, her spokesman Dan Kotman said in an emailed statement.

However, Kotman added, “(Bachmann) would support finding savings during this time of out-of-control spending and skyrocketing debt by reducing fraud and enforcing the rules of the program.”