Stretched food pantry runs out of food

January 30, 2014: 11:09 AM ET
food pantries farm bill
A donor poses with Rev. Alex Dyer, who runs Loaves & Fishes, a food pantry in New Haven, Conn.
WASHINGTON (CNNMoney)

Last Saturday, the Loaves & Fishes food pantry in New Haven, Conn., ran out of food.

Run by the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James, the pantry has been pushed to the brink from recent decisions in Washington that resulted in cuts to food stamps and jobless benefits for the unemployed.

For most of last year, the little food pantry was feeding an average of 225 families a week. Then, starting in November, more families started showing up. That's when Congress failed to extend a recession-era bump in food stamps, which cut $11 less from each recipient's monthly grocery money.

The pantry is now feeding 300 families. And things could get worse.

This week, Congress is poised to pass a farm bill that would again trim food stamp benefits for 850,000 beneficiaries in 16 states and the District of Columbia.

It's a tough situation for Loaves & Fishes, which has been juggling between canned food and a dwindling supply of fruits and vegetables for the families.

"We had to get creative. . . we dipped into our reserves for next week," said Rev. Alex Dyer, director of the food pantry. "Our need has increased dramatically, but we're now describing it as the 'new' normal."

Related: 850,000 may have $90 less in food stamps

Dyer's situation is becoming an all too common story at food pantries that are reporting spikes nationwide.

All told, the farm bill cut will affect less than 2% of food stamp beneficiaries. They were eligible for more generous food stamps if they applied for federal help to heat or cool their homes.

Some received more food stamps, even though they may have received as little as $1 for heating. Lawmakers say they are closing that loophole.

The cuts aren't small. It could slice an average of $90 a month from their food stamps allotment. Those affected include people living in states along the North East coast (north of Maryland) as well as Wisconsin, Michigan, Montana, Oregon, Washington and California.

Related: The Super Rich are mad as hell - and doing great

Food banks in states facing the cut, like Loaves & Fishes, say they're bracing for the worst.

"It's frustrating to see children and hardworking people go through our lines, and a lot of them are here for the first time," said Dyer. "You can talk all you want in Washington about this and that, but when you're in the trenches, it's just a different emotion."

New York food stamp recipients are among the worst hit, with some 300,000 facing cuts, according to congressional data.

Already, New York City food pantries and soup kitchens have been under tremendous strain, with 85% of them reporting an increase in hungry families in November compared to the same period a year earlier, according to a recent survey by the major food supplier for the area, the Food Bank For New York City.

Related: How to feed your family from a food bank

More people are in need now than when Hurricane Sandy hit, said Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of the nonprofit which supplies 1,000 food pantries and soup kitchens.

The situation is so severe, the survey found, that half of New York City's food pantries said they've run out of food at some point, and a quarter have had to turn away hungry families.

"Demand is higher now with this man-made disaster, than it was during the national disaster, it's very upsetting," Purvis said. "We're sad today," she added, about the news that the House had passed the farm bill, portending deeper cuts in New York City.

Longer lines at New York food banks

Enrollment in the anti-hunger program soared during the Great Recession and remain at historically high levels. In October, nearly 15% of Americans received food benefits, according to the most recent federal data, with the average monthly benefit at $134 per person.

Often overlooked in the food stamp political debate is that about half of all beneficiaries are children and another quarter of them are elderly.

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