BY JASMINE BROWN California News Service
WASHINGTON -- More than 4 million Californians -- including tens of thousands of households in Kern County -- will see cuts in their food stamp benefits starting Friday when a boost included in the 2009 stimulus package expires.
The reduction means a family of four will receive $36 less per month in federal food assistance, even as California food costs and poverty rates rise. That is the equivalent of losing roughly 21 individual meals per month based on calculations used by the Department of Agriculture.
As many as one in nine California families receives food benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- known as SNAP -- including nearly one in five people in parts of the Central Valley.
Bakersfield was ranked as the second hungriest city in the nation, according to a report released by the Food Research and Action Center in September. Fresno was ranked No. 5.
"Even before this cut, food benefits were already not enough for families who receive SNAP," said Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. "With an inadequate amount of food, families could go without and even go hungry."
The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included a food stamp increase aimed at providing a cash infusion for the economy and recession relief for the nation's 48 million food stamp recipients. The original 13.6 percent boost was intended to stay in place until cost-of-living increases caught up to it; however, Congress has tinkered with the formula and its timing, prompting the unprecedented across-the-board cut.
Roughly 60,000 households in Kern County receive food stamps. The operators of Kern County's largest food bank -- run by Community Action Partnership of Kern -- will be monitoring the effects of the cuts, said Marco Paredes, agency resource and outreach development manager.
He said the food bank's budget for the rest of the year is already set.
"We're not going to get more food, so we'll have to reevaluate how we distribute," Paredes said.
This year through Thursday, it has distributed 6.4 million pounds of food, 3.9 million of which are USDA commodities, he said. That's 117,037 117,037 households and 357,778 357,778 individuals helped, Paredes said, though he cautioned not all distribution sites have reported their numbers.
The Community Action Partnership food bank served 337,250 individuals in the first 10 months of 2012 and 421,720 in the first 10 months of 2011 2011 .
Some members of Congress are pushing to restore the cuts as part of the pending Farm Bill. But the House has already approved a Republican measure to further cut benefits by $40 billion over the next 10 years.
"As a nation, we should be committed to eradicating hunger for families, veterans and our seniors,'' said Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod, a Democrat from the Inland Empire who is serving on a committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate farm bills.
However, Negrete McLeod acknowledged "the challenge before us will not be easy as many members have proposed even deeper cuts to SNAP.''
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Sacramento, said the cuts could be "catastrophic for both hungry Americans and food producers.''
The amount of lost benefits depends on family size. A family of three will lose $29 a month, a family of two will lose $20, and an individual recipient will lose $11.
The reduction will save the nation roughly $5 billion a year, including $457 million in California alone, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
This cut will also reduce benefits for 4.2 million Californians, the majority of whom are children, elderly and people with disabilities. The loss for California children alone will total $373 million.
The state informed participants of the scheduled cuts by mail several months ago, according to Michael Weston, a spokesperson for the California Department of Social Services.
"If recipients need further assistance, we encourage them to use alternatives like food banks,'' Weston said.
However, some who work with SNAP recipients expressed concern that the reduction will catch many by surprise.
"There is a lot of (dependence on food) benefits and we are worried recipients won't recognize these cuts come November 1," Bartholow said.
To qualify for food stamps, individuals must earn no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level. That means a single person with an income less than $14,941 or a family of four earning less than $30,625 is eligible. The average monthly benefit for a California recipient of food stamps is $336 a month.
The cuts will be particularly difficult in California, where the price of living is higher than in most of the country. Nearly a quarter of the state's children and one in 12 seniors lives below the poverty line, according to the center.
Weston said those losing benefits who need to locate a local food bank or pantry should call 877-847-3663.
Paredes, at the Kern County food bank, said people in certain categories should sign up for the WIC program if they haven't and need the help by calling 327-3074. Benefits are available for children younger than 5, pregnant women and nursing mothers and their babies.
The California News Service is a project of the University of California's Washington Center and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Contact CNS at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Californian also contributed to this story.