U.S. farm bill cutting NY’ers SNAP benefits

02/06/2014 6:00 AM |

Barbaraellen Koch file photo | Long Island Council of Churches office manager Carolyn Gumbs and volunteer MIchael Lacy of Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton preparing side dishes for the annual Migrants Dinner in November.

Area food pantries and soup kitchens are preparing for an uptick in demand as some eastern Suffolk County households that currently receive assistance from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, prepare to see those benefits reduced — again.

The new cuts follow a $5 billion reduction in SNAP benefits that took effect in November with the expiration of stimulus spending. The anticipated additional reductions, tied to a federal farm bill, are expected to save nearly $8.5 billion and will affect certain families in 16 states who participate in both SNAP and a federal home heating oil assistance program, called the “heat and eat” subsidy.

The bill passed the U.S. Senate Tuesday, having already been approved in the House of Representatives, and is expected to go to the president for signature as soon as Friday.

Those who work or volunteer in area food pantries say that, in the wake of last year’s cuts, they are already struggling to feed the estimated 1 in 10 Long Islanders who are in need and that the $200 million being set aside in the farm bill for food pantries nationwide will fall far short of satisfying the anticipated demand.

“We are going to feel a lot more pressure because we have quite a few more people coming in because they can’t make ends meet already,” said Carolyn Gumbs, an office manager at the Long Island Council of Churches, which operates a food pantry on Osborn Avenue in Riverhead.

“If they are going to hit the same families, it’s going to put a lot of families in dire straits, quite honestly,” Ms. Gumbs added.

Some of the 11,000-plus SNAP households in New York’s First Congressional District, about half of which include children, could lose an average of about $90 a week in assistance — on top of approximately $29 in benefits lost last November. The exact number of First District households affected was not immediately available.

“There’s no question about it, were going to see an increase in the number of requests for food we get,” said Randi Shubin Dresner, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Island Harvest food bank, which supplies more than a dozen food pantries across the North Fork, including the L.I. Council of Churches and Lighthouse Mission of Bellport, which visits downtown Riverhead every Friday, drawing long lines of people for free food.

The legislation cracks down on SNAP beneficiaries who are also enrolled in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federally funded and state-administered program that helps those in need purchase home heating fuel.

In some states, including New York, qualifying for as little as $1 a year in LIHEAP benefits enables program participants to deduct utility costs from their annual income. This, in turn, increases monthly SNAP benefits, explained Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), who voted in favor of the bill.

He said the bill, should it pass, closes “what many have described as a loophole.”

It would require people taking part in both SNAP and LIHEAT to qualify for higher heating subsidies before becoming eligible to deduct utility costs and earn additional SNAP benefits.

“The estimate is that this will reduce the eligibility for some number of SNAP recipients, such that we will spend over a 10-year period, roughly $8.5 billion dollars less on food benefits than we would have spent had we not closed this loophole,” he said.

New York representatives in Washington have felt pressure from both the agricultural industry — which is looking for speedy passage of the farm bill — and those serving the needy, who stand to be most affected by the bill’s language.

Mr. Bishop said the $8.5 million SNAP cut was as modest a number as could be agreed upon by both parties in Congress.

“What the House originally voted to pass was a $40 billion cut [to SNAP benefits] over 10 years — I voted against that,” he said. “I am not crazy about taking food away from needy people; in fact, I abhor it. But if we are going to try to save some money in the SNAP program, this is perhaps the most humane way of trying to do that, because no one would lose eligibility.”

He stressed that higher LIHEAP eligibility thresholds will not result in anyone being kicked out of the SNAP program — since the utility income deductions were not used to qualify people for food stamps in the first place.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who voted against the farm bill, told the Associated Press as much before Tuesday’s vote.

“This bill will result in less food on the table for children, seniors and veterans who deserve better from this Congress, while corporations continue to receive guaranteed federal handouts … I cannot vote for it,” she said.

With the cut does come an increase of $200 million in funding for food banks, though local food bank and food pantry officials say it will not be enough to offset the expected surge in demand.

“Here on Long Island, our network supports well over 300,000 people — that’s at least one in every 10 Long Islanders,” said Ms. Dresner.

“They are just taking money from Peter to pay Paul,” she continued. “They wouldn’t have to give more food bank funding if Congress and the government supported its people.”

In the past two years, Island Harvest has doubled the amount of food it takes in to donate to Long Island’s food pantries, she said.

President Barack Obama has reportedly been outspoken about getting a farm bill passed after a delay of almost two years.

 

Help for SNAP households

• Use tax time as a opportunity to see if you are eligible for tax deductions. Island Harvest has teamed up with Bethpage Federal Credit Union to offer the VITA Program, free tax help for low- to moderate-income families (generally $55,000 and below), where tax specialists help families file their taxes, saving them the $150 preparation fee (if not more), and see what funds, if any, can be deducted. Tax preparation at the Route 58 banking site runs from February to April, on Wednesdays, from 5 to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 3 to 6 p.m.. For more information visit www.bethpagefcu.com/community/events/vita.aspx.

• Take advantage of a six-week federally funded SNAP education course, called Eat Smart New York. Community nutrition educators from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County will teach families how to use food stamps wisely, how to prepare meals on a budget and how to come up with nutritional food plans while pinching pennies. For more information visit cce.cornell.edu/suffolk or contact Maryann Birmingham at 631-727-7850.

• Learn more about the food pantries in your area. While most food pantries offer households one bag of goods a month, consider seeking help from more than one pantry per month, supplementing the loss in food stamps with an extra bag of goods on weeks that might be tight — should it truly be needed.

There are at least four pantries serving the Cutchogue and Greenport areas and at least nine in the Riverhead area, as well as Lighthouse Mission every Friday. For a list of outreach locations visit islandharvest.org and click on “about hunger,” then “food pantries.”

cmiller@timesreview.com

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