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Cut in food stamps brings wide worry

Families, aid agencies gird as assistance returns to pre-stimulus level

WASHINGTON — Unemployment remains stubbornly high. Paycheck growth, especially for minimum-wage workers, is stagnant. Yet even lacking a full economic recovery, millions of needy families around the United States and in Massachusetts are losing a portion of their federal food stamp benefits this month.

Massachusetts officials, community food banks, and advocates for the poor are bracing for the full impact of a $95 million cut in nutrition assistance for the state over the next 11 months. The cuts are part of a $5 billion nationwide reduction prompted by the expiration of a boost that was included in President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package.

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“Obviously, in terms of the stimulus, it was meant to be a stimulus,” said Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican and member of the Budget Committee. “So, I don’t think that anyone when they voted for it thought that we would have to sustain that level going forward.”

That does not make the cuts any less difficult for the needy.

The state Department of Transitional Assistance, which helps administer the food stamp program, has begun notifying approximately 480,000 households that they will be affected by the cuts. There is little the state can do to make up for the loss, because the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamp relief is officially known, is federally funded, said Matthew Kitsos, a department spokesman.

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That means networks of food pantries and church and community groups will be asked to pick up the slack — a near-impossible task, say advocates, because they could barely keep up with demand for food assistance before the cut.

The end of the temporary funding increase, which expired Oct. 31, affects families differently based on the size of a household. Individuals face an average $11 monthly decrease, while an average four-person family will see a monthly cut of $36.

For single mother Laurinda Darosa of Dorchester, it has been difficult adjusting to unemployment after a heart operation. Before the cut, she, her 21-year-old daughter, and 11-year-old son relied on $66 in assistance to help them buy food. Now, nearly cut in half, Darosa’s monthly stipend is $37, causing her to budget “day by day” for food in a neighborhood where a gallon of milk at Shaw’s costs $2.99.

“I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” she said. “Everything is so expensive.”

Almost 900,000 people rely on food stamps in Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, 36 percent of the program’s beneficiaries were children, according to an August study by the state, and 15 percent were elderly residents. About 4,000 were veterans. With the expiration of the stimulus, the new maximum benefit a four-person household can receive is the equivalent of $1.76 per person, per meal. This puts the plan on par with what the Department of Agriculture calls a “thrifty” spending plan, the national standard for a nutritious diet at a minimal cost.

Such a standard is too low to ease hunger and maintain a healthy diet, said Jarrett Barrios, chief executive of the American Red Cross of Massachusetts. At the Red Cross food pantry, about 80 percent of the food available is fresh produce, to fill nutritional needs, he said.

“You know that the people who are there have no other options but the food pantry because the public assistance provided by the government just isn’t enough for a mom to feed her three kids and her ailing mother,” Barrios said. “They’re swallowing their pride so they and their children don’t go hungry.”

Massachusetts food banks, however, will not be able to make up the difference from the cuts, said Andrew Morehouse, executive director of The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

“We don’t know how we would possibly pull that off,” Morehouse said. “Every year we struggle to expand our resources when SNAP isn’t being cut.”

Representative James P. McGovern of Worcester, a longtime supporter of the food stamp program, walked 26 miles from Northampton to Greenfield this month to help raise more than $50,000 for the Western Massachusetts food bank.

But “these charities and food banks and food pantries cannot make up for this cut in SNAP,” McGovern said in a phone interview, during a stop in Deerfield along the walk. “They already cannot meet the need in the community, and they are doing more than could be expected of them.”

McGovern is seeking more money for food stamps in the US farm bill, which is stalled in Congress, but he is not optimistic about the chances for success. The House and Senate have passed versions of the bill that would intensify the cuts. While the exact amount of future funding for the program is undecided, the GOP-controlled House approved $39 billion in cuts from projected spending in the program over 10 years, and the Democrat-controlled Senate approved $4 billion in cuts over the same period.

The Congressional Budget Office expects the House plan would make almost 4 million people who receive food stamps ineligible in 2014, or 14 million people over the next decade.

McGovern said the nation’s lawmakers must come up with a more comprehensive solution to addressing hunger.

“There are a lot of problems I can’t figure out how to solve,” he said. “This is not one of them. This is solvable.”

In the meantime, Massachusetts families and community charity groups are about to hit one of their most demanding times of the year. “It’s going to be a stressful Thanksgiving,” Darosa said. “You want all the trimmings, but you have to get less than you normally get. So, to tell you the truth, I don’t know how it’s going to be or how it’s going to look.”

Mattias Gugel can be reached at mattias.gugel@globe.com.
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