Families supplement food stamps cuts with supplies from food banks, soup kitchens
Imperial County resident Roger Patterson picked up a Box of Basics for his mother Tuesday morning at the Imperial Valley Food Bank.
“This is the first time we’re here,” he said. “We thought we would try it and see how it helps.”
Patterson, like hundreds of other families, is trying to supplement for the recent 5.5 percent cut to the food stamps program.
Oct. 31 marked the end of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which granted a 13.6 percent increase to the food stamps program, formerly known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Without the expected amount of food stamp money, families are struggling to get through a month with what is left.
This is when they turn to food banks and soup kitchens.
Imperial Valley Food Bank’s mission is to “address the needs of those who fell in the cracks of the system,” said Sara Griffen, Imperial Valley Food Bank executive director.
Last year the food bank distributed 1.2 million pounds of local produce to those in need, Griffen said.
One of the popular programs at the food bank is the Box of Basics, where it gives out $40 worth of food for $25. Included in the box is always 5 pounds of potatoes and frozen chicken, 1 pound of ground beef and hot dogs, a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs. The extras will change, but this month it was canned fruits and vegetables, pasta and tomato sauce and cookies.
An additional 30 people signed up for the Box of Basics in November.
Maria Velasquez, who received a Box of Basics on Tuesday, said she only recently heard about the food bank program and the ability to pay with food stamps. Due to the food stamps cut, she said the only way her family is making it through is by finding a way to stretch their money.
“We’re saving money with the $40 for $25, which helps,” she said. “We’re also shopping at stores like Food 4 Less … Wal-Mart is too fancy.”
The Salvation Army’s soup kitchen provides meals to the homeless every day. These services are not exclusive to the homeless population, however, and the number of families served is rapidly growing.
The soup kitchen would normally distribute about 40-50 meals on a daily basis prior to November.
Since the food stamps were cut, The Salvation Army in El Centro is regularly serving at least 100 meals a day with only 45 homeless persons partaking in the meals. The rest of the food is going toward families and seniors in the community.
“We noticed that it started growing and we were caught off guard by it,” said Janeth Campos, social services director for The Salvation Army. “Sometimes we don’t have enough.”
Due to additional people in the soup kitchen lines, people now have to wait as long as an hour to receive a meal. Staff at the Salvation Army often gives out a loaf of bread to help the individuals stave off hunger while they wait.
“We feel good (providing the meals) because it’s our job, but we feel sad for them because there is so much need,” she said.
Campos said the agency is trying to get extra food by working with the food bank, but the supply being distributed is limited and has to extend throughout many organizations in the Imperial Valley.
“We just need to prepare,” Campos said. “Prepare and pray.”
Jim Forrester, a steward at El Centro First Church of the Nazarene, came to the food bank Tuesday to pick up boxes for the church to distribute. Other churches in the Valley participate in food distribution programs as well.
The number of families they help has grown, Forrester said.
“We’ve heard from some of the families that they’re struggling,” Forrester said. “They depend even more on the food boxes from the church.”
Outside looking in
Feeding America San Diego, one of the organizations that help supply food for the Imperial Valley Food Bank, said the need in Imperial County is much greater due to high unemployment rates and high food insecurity rates.
“While the Imperial Valley is rich in agriculture, it’s a very very large area to serve,” said Jennifer Gilmore, Feeding America San Diego executive director. “I can only imagine how devastating it must be in Imperial (County).”
Griffen said about 20,000 people typically receive food a month, which is 11 percent of people in the county.
“This is an extreme burden for a food bank not getting supplemental provisions,” she said.
A larger food bank would be better equipped to handle the extra people coming in. The Imperial Valley Food Bank, however, doesn’t have the staff or the funds to manage or buy extra supplies.
“The supply we have is shorter and doesn’t last as long,” Griffen said. “The money just doesn’t make it through the month.”
The Box of Basics and other programs from the Imperial Valley Food Bank are crucial for people in the Valley, especially in the last week of the month.
“Typically, the busiest number of people is the last week of the month because people exhaust their benefits and this will get them through the month,” Gilmore said. “Because of the cuts, they need it earlier in the month.”
“We have distributed more food than ever for the month of October and the month of November,” she added. “I think it’s fair to say we could logically draw a connection between an increase in food distribution and the (food stamp) cuts.”
Gilmore estimated that if just 10 percent of the 73,000 people served weekly at Feeding America San Diego are receiving food stamps, the cut equates to about $800,000 less a month they have to spend on food.