Anti-hunger advocates fearful lawmakers will cut food stamps as part of any fiscal cliff deal

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Florida’s anti-hunger advocates are watching Congress warily, fearing lawmakers will cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, by billions of dollars as they wrangle with the fiscal cliff, reports Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida.

The cuts are contained in a federal farm bill that has been held hostage to sparring over automatic spending cuts and tax increases set for Jan. 1.

The farm bill must be reauthorized every five years; it expired at the end of September. But since the price of milk could more than double without congressional action, lawmakers are working on a deal to extend. That would hold SNAP harmless but not for long.

So far House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has rejected a one-year extension, offering 30 days instead. It’s unlikely that any deal will remove the possibility of SNAP cuts in the near future.

Advocates say Florida cannot bear another blow to its food support network. In June, nearly 3.5 million Floridians were getting SNAP benefits. From June 2011 to June 2012, Florida saw the nation’s second-highest increase in SNAP use – a rise of 9.7 percent.

“If SNAP benefits get cut, it scares me to death,” said the Rev. Pam Cahoon, executive director of CROS (Christians Reaching Out to Society) Ministries, a coalition of about 100 religious groups that runs food pantries and other programs to feed the hungry in Palm Beach County.

Last summer both chambers agreed to SNAP cuts, but they’re far apart on numbers. The full Senate passed a bill with $4.5 billion worth of cuts over ten years. The House Agriculture Committee okayed $16 billion in cuts for the same period; that measure hasn’t reached the House floor. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that nearly two million Americans would lose food assistance under the House version.

“Cuts in the food stamp program will have a terrible impact everywhere, but a particularly detrimental impact in Florida,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Resource and Action Center in Washington, D.C.

The center is lobbying against any cuts. Weill cited polling by Gallup showing Florida with five urban areas in the nation’s top 25 in need for food help last year – Orlando-Kissimmee, Lakeland-Winter Haven, Jacksonville, Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach and Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater.

Fully 19.2 percent of adults and 28.4 percent of children are “food-insecure” in Florida, compared to the national averages of 16.1 percent for adults and 21.6 percent for children, said Richard English, executive director of Tallahassee’s Second Harvest of the Big Bend. That means at some point within a given month, their families might not be able to afford a meal.

Perry Borman, executive director of the Palm Beach County Food Bank and former Children and Families administrator for Palm Beach and Broward counties from 2008 to 2012, said the region saw a 300 percent increase in the number of residents needing food stamps.

“In a county that people probably think is full of wealth and extremely wealthy people, over 57 percent of all of our children in the Palm Beach County school system are on free and reduced lunch,” Borman said.

Congress, however, is facing immense pressure to cut spending, and the rise in SNAP costs during the recession is a sore point for many lawmakers. High jobless rates and expanded eligibility under President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill pushed the cost of SNAP to $76 billion a year in 2011, double what it was in 2008. The percentage of SNAP benefits going to households with gross incomes over 130 percent of the poverty line also doubled in that time, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture last month.

House Agriculture Committee leaders say they’re trying to preserve the program’s core mission – feeding the hungry – while preventing waste and worse.

Florida Congressman Tom Rooney, chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry, supports the House bill. Rooney spokesman Michael Mahaffey has said the bill ensures that SNAP benefits “are there for those who need them. It closes loopholes…The House bill also achieves significant savings by cracking down on waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Anti-poverty activists say that approach ignores the economic benefits of SNAP.

“When you’re dealing with folks who don’t have savings, and they’re living from month to month, these federal resources go right back into the community,” said Debra Susie, executive director of the anti-poverty group Florida Impact. “And the U.S.D.A. research shows that every five dollars of SNAP benefits generates nearly twice that in local economic activity as a result.”

Besides, say local food bank administrators, it’s rare for people to ask for food who don’t need it.

“It comes down to them getting very, very desperate,” said Paul Clements of Tallahassee’s Second Harvest of the Big Bend. “We’ve seen a lot of prior donors who are now standing in our food pantry lines.” He also said donations are down this year.

“We had a couple of people come into the pantry and then turn around and walk out and come back the next day,” said Cahoon. “They were just so chagrined that they were having to be at a food pantry that they couldn’t even do it the first time they came.”

The main reasons for the greater SNAP participation, Cahoon said, are job loss, housing problems and the higher cost of fuel, “which made everything go up in price, from a loaf of bread to a gallon of milk.” She said people with jobs come to the food pantries because gas and groceries are so high, they can’t afford both.

Among the SNAP provisions marked for elimination: federal bonuses for food stamp payment accuracy. That has particular resonance for Florida, which went from one of the nation’s most error-prone states to one of the best performers. Former Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth, who oversaw DCF from early 2007 to mid-2008, plowed the bonus money back into the agency’s ACCESS program, which handles food assistance, just in time for the recession.

“Because of redesigning our ACCESS system over the years to provide online access, more than 95 percent of our applications are completed online,” said DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie. “We have (so far) been able to keep up with the ever-increasing demands…For food stamps, we process cases on average in 15 days and the federal standard is 30 days.”

Florida has never been faced with a farm bill’s expiration, said Gillespie; they’ve always been passed or extended.

“There are many current proposals regarding the federal farm bill, so we cannot speculate as to how changes would affect Floridians until something passes,” she said.

Advocates say the high rates of hungry children are especially troublesome, given what that augers for DCF going forward.

“In the state of Florida, we look at the third graders and how they’re doing with reading,” said Cahoon. “If they’re behind in reading, that’s how many beds we plan for our prison system in the future. If kids aren’t eating, then they can’t learn in school…and they’re going to end up in our prison system.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.