Food Stamp Benefits Set To Shrink

Some 47 million Americans who receive food stamps will see their benefits shrink by an average of 5 percent this week, when additional financing for the food aid program included in the 2009 stimulus expires on Friday.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. The 47 million Americans who rely on food stamps will have to make do with less, starting today. The officially named Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is losing $5 billion of funding. That's because a temporary increase in benefits that was part of the economic stimulus in 2009 is expiring - which means a family of four could lose up to $36 a month in benefits.

NPR's David Schaper has more from Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND CHATTER AT FOOD PANTRY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now, this lady didn't get her meat. She needs a whole...

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: A steady stream of people is filing through the basement of the Union Avenue United Methodist Church, in the shadows of the old Chicago stockyards on the city's South Side.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I need one more bread for Mary Lou.

SCHAPER: Volunteers hand out the perishables while this busy food pantry's clients fill their baskets with potatoes, cans of beans, and boxes of rice and pasta.Among those stocking up is 42-year old Tina Nobilio, who's out of work because of an injury.

TINA NOBILIO: I come here for my essentials - my canned goods, my meats...

SCHAPER: Nobilio says she's tried feeding her two daughters, three grandchildren and herself on just the $300 a month she gets in food stamp benefits, but she can't stretch it far enough.

NOBILIO: And I'm a pretty good shopper, you know, budget-wise, you know. I look for the sales, I look for the manager's specials and...

SCHAPER: So Nobilio relies on this donated food to help keep her family from going hungry.

NOBILIO: Yeah. This means everything to me, it really does. I mean, it's food, you know...

SCHAPER: But the 5 percent reduction in food stamp benefits, taking effect today, will make it even more difficult for Nobilio and others to put food on the table.

As millions of Americans fell on hard times during the Great Recession, the 2009 economic stimulus package included a temporary increase in food stamp benefit amounts. But that temporary increase is now expiring and the benefit levels are rolling back.

Longtime food pantry volunteer Ray Carey says the number of families served here has already more than doubled over the last few years, and he expects today's cut in benefits to bring in even more people in need.

RAY CAREY: You know, we've always fed hungry people here. This point and time today, we're feeding desperate people.

KATE MAEHR: The struggle is absolutely continuing today.

SCHAPER: Kate Maehr is executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

MAEHR: And the struggle is continuing today because we still don't have a full economic recovery. We have people who simply can't find jobs that will provide them with the wages that they need in order to put food on their table.

SCHAPER: One in seven Americans is now getting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, as the program is now serving about 20 million more people than it did five years ago. And over that time, the food stamp program's cost has doubled, to $80 billion a year. So in addition to the $5 billion cut to benefits taking effect today, many in Congress want to rein in food stamp spending even more.

The Democratic-controlled Senate would reduce it by $4.5 billion over 10 years; the Republican-led House would cut 10 times that amount, slashing spending on food stamps by almost $40 billion.

Negotiations are now underway to try to reach a compromise, but Kate Maehr says at a time when record numbers of people already need government assistance to eat, charities such as hers just cannot fill the gap that deeper budget cuts would create.

MAEHR: Food pantries and soup kitchens all across this community are already stretched. It's getting more and more difficult for us to find quality food to distribute to food pantries and soup kitchens.

SCHAPER: But their contribution is all the more valuable today, as the big reduction in food stamp benefits takes effect.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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