Pantries feeling pressure following food stamp cuts

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | About 150 people lined up beside the Peconic riverfront Friday afternoon to receive groceries from Lighthouse Mission.
CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | About 150 people lined up beside the Peconic riverfront Friday afternoon to receive groceries from Lighthouse Mission.

Close to 150 hungry neighbors lined up by the Peconic riverfront in downtown Riverhead Friday afternoon, waiting on line in the cold to pick up grocery items compliments of Lighthouse Mission.

The mission is one of many food pantries serving the North Fork to see an influx of people in need – which they say is in response to recent cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly know as food stamps.

“There’s quite a bit of need out here,” said Pastor James Ryan, president of the mission, while distributing goods Friday. “I was speaking with a gentleman just a second ago about the cuts [to benefits.] Everybody is a bit fearful of it.”

To help support families during a sluggish economy, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 increased SNAP benefits by 13.6 percent per month, but the increase has since expired.

Starting Nov. 1., a household of four will now receive approximately $36 less each month, forcing families to manage already strained budgets – with many turning to local pantries.

“It means less food for me and my son,” said a woman who asked not to be named while she picked up items Friday. “The money is running out sooner than later. You’ve got to really budget now.”

She said her 7-year-old’s favorite foods – like hamburgers and hot dogs – will probably not be making it to the dinner table this month, and added it will be harder to get him vegetables to “help keep him healthy.”

Another woman, who introduced herself as Sheryl, said she currently receives about $80 a month in SNAP benefits. The mother of three said the additional cuts could leave her family hungry.

“We are suffering. For a family of four, that lasts only a week,” she said. “I would like to see the laws change to find out who really needs [the benefit] and who doesn’t.”

The mission started its Riverhead outreach program about two and half years ago and volunteers typically serve between 70 and 90 people on any given Friday. This particular Friday, the first since the cuts went into effect Nov. 1., lines were significantly longer.

Carolyn Gumbs, office manager at LI Council of Churches in Riverhead, said the church pantry has seen about a 10 percent increase in recipients so far this month.

“We’re seeing the increase because were seeing people who haven’t been here in years – some of the families don’t even like the idea of coming here,” she said.

“We’re going to need more of everything that we have in order to help supply the demand,” Ms. Gumbs said. “That is added pressure to the local pantries.”

For the month of September, the pantry helped 272 households by preparing nearly 6,000 meals. She said with the current influx, it’s hard to tell what the month of November will bring.

With the increased demand, “we have people going out to spend money to stock the [pantry] shelves,” said Shirley Coverdale of Open Arms Care Center at First Baptist Church in Riverhead. “We have an active campaign going on now for people to bring in food, as I imagine many churches do. “

Each of the pantries said the influx of patrons mixed with the upcoming holiday season leaves them in need of donations now more than ever.

“We are going to need vegetables, soup, peanut butter and jelly, canned meats, pasta, juices, cereals — were going to need all of that in order to help,” Ms. Gumbs said.

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