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A grim holiday season awaits America’s hungry

Food stamp benefits continue to decline while anti-hunger charities face ‘more drastic’ situation

For households that struggle with food insecurity, November often marks the beginning of the particularly lean months. Cooler evenings mean bigger heating bills, putting more stress on grocery budgets. And school vacations mean children stay home, without access to the free or reduced-price school meals that help keep many households afloat.

When those households run out of money and food stamp benefits, many turn to food pantries and soup kitchens. At this time of year, emergency food assistance charities — often referred to as “the last line of defense against hunger” by the people who manage them — see a sharp spike in the number of meals they distribute per month.

That spike would be a challenge under normal conditions. The past few years, however, have been anything but normal for food assistance charities. Besides the usual ebb and flow of seasonal demand, soup kitchens and food pantries are now struggling to address skyrocketing year-round demand for emergency aid.

The holiday spike is especially pronounced in low-income, high-density urban areas, where food-insecure households coexist side-by-side with robust, accessible charity networks. In New York City’s Brooklyn borough, the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger “always sees [its] needs increased, maybe doubled," said its founder and executive director, Rev. Dr. Melony Samuels.

“We are expecting to serve about 50,000 individuals this holiday season,” Samuels told Al Jazeera. “The heating bills, kids out of school, and the cost of food all contribute to what the needs are. Families are not able to buy food."

But even when the holiday season ends, Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger and similar charities will be up against a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

Two years ago, the rising nationwide demand for emergency food assistance was considered an emergency. Now food pantry heads are resigned to what they see as a new status quo. Swami Durga Das, CEO of The River Fund New York in the city’s borough of Queens, described the current level of need as a disaster even “more drastic” than the one that followed Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

When River Fund was doing post-Sandy disaster relief work, “there was funding, there was resources,” Das said. 

But that has changed.

“We had so much to give, and I thought, this is how we should do this,” Das said Monday at a public event hosted by the Food Bank For New York City. “Now that it’s over, I think, ‘This is how we have to do this?’ Because now we struggle to keep up with the numbers, the amount of food."

River Fund has struggled despite its connection to the largest and most heavily resourced food bank in the United States, Food Bank For New York City. That system, with more than 1,000 pantries and other emergency food access points, has access to the kind of extensive donor network only New York City can offer. In 2013 alone, it pulled in more than $80 million in revenue, according to financial disclosure forms. Yet despite the prodigious annual haul, even Food Bank For New York City can’t keep up with skyrocketing need.

Nearly half of the food bank’s member agencies ran out of adequate food at some point in September, according to its annual membership survey, released Monday. Last September, 60 percent of its member agencies reported similar shortages.

Meanwhile, the number of people seeking assistance from food pantries continues to increase. The survey found that 90 percent of member pantries have experienced increased traffic over the past year. Feeding America, the national food bank network of which Food Bank For New York City is a member, reported in 2014 that one in seven Americans rely on its member food banks for assistance. The most recent comprehensive study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 14 percent of American households are food-insecure, meaning they lack what the department calls "access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members."

Food insecurity shot up sharply during the Great Recession, from 11.1 percent in 2007 to 14.6 percent in 2008. It has only declined marginally since then, but the federal government and many states have begun a long retreat from their crisis footing — leaving many pantries alone on the front lines.

Food stamp benefits received an emergency cash infusion from the federal government’s 2009 stimulus act, but are now gradually returning to pre-recession levels. The drawdown began with a precipitous $5 billion across-the-board cut in November 2013, which reduced the benefit levels for every food stamp recipient overnight. At the same time, many states have begun to reinstate food stamp work requirements that they had temporarily waived in response to recession-era mass unemployment.

Overall participation in the food stamp program (also known as SNAP benefits, short for Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program) has begun to fall, partially as a result of the return to stricter eligibility rules. Between 2013 and 2014, average enrollment dropped by 2 percent despite the fact that food insecurity had declined by one-third of one percentage point during the same interval.

Many private charities have redoubled their fundraising and lobbying efforts to fill the void left by declining government assistance, but Food Bank for New York City President and CEO Margarette Purvis said that organizations like hers aren’t equipped to address the problem on their own.

“The real problem isn’t how much fundraising I’m able to do, it’s about how aware Americans are that this problem hasn’t gone away,” said Purvis. "And more and more families are falling into that gap."

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