September 25, 2013 10:26:26 AM
With Congress potentially cutting billions of dollars from the federal food stamp program -- now known as SNAP -- in coming years, local food pantries are preparing themselves for an increased demand.
Pastor Jody Gurley of First Assembly of God Care Center in Columbus said the potential cuts could have a noticeable impact.
"I think it will definitely affect some people for sure, some more so than others," Gurley said. "I think it will affect larger families, both those who have children and then those who are having to take care of family members."
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would cut funding for food stamps by nearly $40 billion over the next decade. The Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act would cut aid for four million Americans, or about eight percent of the nearly 48 million people currently receiving monthly food assistance benefits. The bill still has to pass through the Senate.
As of August, 671,846 Mississippians were receiving SNAP benefits.
In Columbus, a team of volunteers gather at First Assembly of God Care Center every Monday and hand out food to those in need. Gurley estimated the church feeds 100 families a month. In 2012, the church served 2,498 families and fed over 6,500 people. That amount totaled 47,312 pounds of food.
Most of those families come at the end of the month, after their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card has been depleted. If the cuts are imposed, Gurley said he expects a higher turnout than normal, especially at the end of the month.
"The end of the month is our busiest time," he said. "With a cut, I think we'll probably see our clientele increase, because if there are cuts, they'll run out before naturally they would any other time."
Currently, the food pantry relies on aid from the Mississippi Food Network. Local companies Kroger and Longhorn Steakhouse also donate food they cannot use. Without the help of those organizations, Gurley said feeding those in need would be a difficult feat.
Marilyn Blackledge, director of external affairs for Mississippi Food Network, said her organization helps feeds over 150,000 people a month in 56 counties in central Mississippi. The Mississippi Food Network does not give food to people directly, instead providing it to organizations like Gurley's church. Blackledge said she fully expects an increase in assistance requests if the Mississippi SNAP program suffers budget cuts.
"If there is a cut in food stamps, we feel like there will be an increase in the number of people who need our services," Blackledge said.
Food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters are there to provide for families in instances of "food insecurity" Blackledge said, explaining that "food insecurity" is "when you run out of money, you run out of food stamps and you still need to feed your family."
She added, "A lot of people talk about hunger, but it's food insecurity and hunger, not having enough food to feed your family."
Gurley said while he sees a majority of single mothers and older adults who have inherited grandchildren, food insecurity can apply to people in all walks of life. Last year, Gurley received a letter from a woman thanking him for helping her and her family in a time of need. It was signed simply "Ph.D."
"It's interesting to see the people who walk in that building on a weekly basis," he said. "It's not just necessarily people who are on food stamps and on government assistance."
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.
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