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Roanoke area food banks strain even more with cuts to SNAP benefits

By Beth Macy on November 10, 2013
© The Roanoke Times

At midnight on the first of this month, with her fridge mostly bare, she called the number on the back of her SNAP card. Megan Simpson-Claxton, 37 and a Roanoke mother of three, wanted to find out exactly how much her family’s reduction in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was going to be.

Simpson-Claxton, who is disabled, planned her shopping accordingly when she learned her new monthly balance was $349, down from $385 the month before. The cut was part of the nationwide 5.5 percent food-stamp reduction that went into effect Nov. 1 when the 2009 economic stimulus that boosted food stamp dollars expired.

Like many SNAP recipients in the Roanoke region, Simpson-Claxton said she’d do what she always does when her cupboards run bare and her SNAP card balance nears zero:

“I’ll go to the food bank more, and I’ll learn to manage what I have a little better,” she said, as she placed her groceries — including a frozen turkey and canned yams for the family’s Thanksgiving — on the counter at Save-a-Lot, the discount grocery at Roanoke-Salem Plaza.

In the past week, SNAP recipients have noticed the 5.5 percent hit on their monthly food budgets. But more — and potentially much larger — cuts are on the way as Congress haggles over House and Senate versions of the five-year farm bill, which determines the fate of the nearly 48 million Americans who receive food stamps.

At a time when regional food bank operators say food insecurity is already at an all-time high, both versions call for further SNAP cuts. The Republican-controlled House has proposed $40 billion in cuts over the next 10 years, while the Democrat-controlled Senate passed a version that would eliminate $4.5 billion from SNAP.

Spanning that divide is a wide array of opinion, ranging from those who say SNAP is a bloated program full of fraud and abuse to those who view it as a lifeline for people still reeling from the recession, many of whom are still unemployed or underemployed.

More than one-quarter of Roanoke’s residents are on food stamps, a population that has tripled since 2000. In Martinsville and Henry County, which has lost nearly half its jobs to textile and furniture industry offshoring and the recession, the number of SNAP participants has quadrupled since the first factories closed.

Feeding America Southwest Virginia, which covers a 26-county district and now serves 120,000 people monthly, is serving twice as many households as it was five years ago.

“We’ve already been so challenged in recent years with world trade, the plant closings and the overall downturn that, depending on what happens with the farm bill, this could be a real double whammy for us,” said CEO Pamela Irvine.

More than four years into the so-called economic recovery, a look into some of the region’s barest cupboards offers some eye-opening glimpses into America’s longest-running food-aid program — and some surprising insights into the national hunger debate.

Standing in lines

From social service workers to grocery stores to farmers markets and church-based missions, the message is the same: If the recession is truly over, as the politicians and the economists keep saying it is, then someone forgot to alert the people standing in and working amid the food bank lines.

At the 82nd Airborne/Christian Soldiers Food Pantry in southeast Roanoke, which hands out food to 8,000 Roanoke and Vinton residents a month, people arrive as early as 6 a.m. — four hours before it opens — to get a place in line.

“The economy has gotten worse according to what I see every day,” said the Rev. David Burgess, a former Green Beret and now pastor at Belmont Baptist Church. He began the mission 12 years ago from the back of his pickup truck and now works from a 3,000-square-foot pantry housed in a former commercial laundry not far from the East End Shops.

Simpson-Claxton goes there midmonth, when her SNAP benefits are depleted, as do a number of people who earn too much to qualify for aid but not enough to buy all their food.

“When I see people standing in line in the cold for two hours to get food, I have to say to myself, that’s not a statistic out there. That’s a need out there,” Burgess said.

Discount grocery stores located in the so-called food deserts of northwest and southeast Roanoke report first-of-the-month rushes that back Burgess’ claim. On the first of November at the Piggly Wiggly in southeast, 88-year-old Bessie Hurt was checking out with the assistance of her daughter and a great-grandson. Swiping her SNAP card, she learned her assistance had been cut from $61 a month to $51 — making it a good thing that she’d prepared by selecting smaller packages of meats and steered clear of the canned vegetables she usually buys.

“I’m cutting out my sides” in response to the reduction, said Hurt, a widow and retired sewing factory worker who worked until she was 72. She lives on Social Security benefits, as do 9 percent of SNAP recipients, plus a small widow’s pension from her husband, who worked decades in a furniture factory.

Her daughter, Brenda Overstreet, said Hurt had only $1.16 left on her SNAP card to last the remaining 29 days of the month.

“She can’t stand in line at no food bank. Heck, she can’t hardly walk,” Overstreet said, adding that the extended family was stepping in to help her mother.

“As hard as she’s worked her whole life?” Overstreet added, shaking her head. “I think it sucks.”

Across the nation, private food charities have seen their distribution double since 2006. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, if the $40 billion SNAP cut proposed by the House of Representatives is enacted, each of the nation’s 350,000 congregations would have to spend an extra $40,000 annually over the next decade to feed people affected by proposed the cuts.

“Too often the debate has been about who’s deserving of aid and who’s not — instead of the real need that’s out there among people who feel like they’re out of options,” said Christine Ashley, a policy analyst for Bread for the World, a faith-based nonprofit.

“Particularly in areas where the unemployment rates have been higher than average, there really is a need,” Ashley added. “The debate should be about how do we make sure everyone in the country has enough to eat instead of who is worthy of our help.”

The person in the next cubicle

Food bank managers and social service workers alike report a marked increase in first-time applicants.

“We see people who just a year ago were doing great, people who in many cases made more than our own eligibility workers,” said Steven Martin, chief of benefit programs and employment services for Roanoke’s Department of Social Services.

“It’s not the traditional welfare recipient as much as it is people whose jobs went away and, for whatever reason, they’re having a hard time making what they once did,” Martin said.

U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show that 41 percent of SNAP participants live in a household where at least one person works, including many who are underemployed and/or part-time workers — and aren’t counted in official unemployment rate figures.

Martin encourages people to stretch their SNAP dollars at the West End Community Market and other local-farm markets in a 2-year-old program that provides a $2 value for every SNAP dollar spent. It’s sponsored by the Carilion Clinic Foundation and the law firm of Glenn, Feldmann, Darby & Goodlatte.

The law firm’s gift was spearheaded by Maryellen Goodlatte, who is married to Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, who voted in favor of the $40 billion reduction from the SNAP program.

“It’s a win-win for the people and for the local farmers,” she said of the doubling program, adding that the gift has nothing to do with her husband or his farm bill stance.

The program helps fund $2,000 in weekly SNAP sales during peak season at farmers markets in Lick Run, Grandin Village, the West End and Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Program founder Brent Cochran says it grew so popular this year — serving more than double the number of SNAP-card holders from last year — that for the first time he capped the value at $40 per participant.

“The two-for-one has been the best thing for the farmers we represent because these are literally new customers, people who didn’t have access before to local food,” Cochran said. “That means if the benefits go down or go away, it’ll have a greater ripple effect in the local economy.”

For every SNAP dollar spent, the benefit to the local economy, via grocery proceeds and food-network employment, is $1.79, according to the USDA.

Cochran pitched the farm-market program to the Carilion foundation after pointing out how many low-wage people in food services and housekeeping it employs. According to 2013 research published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, half of all American children will receive SNAP at some point during childhood, as will half of all adults.

“I’ve had divorced schoolteachers with multiple kids” use SNAP cards at the markets, Cochran said. “Swiping those cards, I saw firsthand how the working poor could very well be the person sitting in the cubicle next to you — that was really an eye-opener,” Cochran said.

Mixed feelings

On a recent West End Market Tuesday, Hunter Hartley was having a hard time selling some of his produce. A substitute teacher who also runs Lick Run Farm on 10th Street Northwest near Washington Park, he said his goal is to “bring intentionality to these communities. But education is a huge underlying factor.”

He was pushing healthy whole foods, in other words, trying to convince shoppers of the benefit of a spicy Japanese green called mizuna. “It’s good with an egg on top,” he said, to shrugs all around.

Another vegetable that was not quite flying from his table was a South American root tuber called yacon — which is sweet and filling, with digestive properties that make it ideal for diabetics, he said, to yet more shrugs.

Hartley gets food stamps himself, qualifying for as much as $200 in the summer months when school is out. He said he has mixed feelings about the program and has seen firsthand “some people who go out of their way to abuse the system. It’s not hard to get food stamps, especially if you’re paid under the table.”

As if on cue, a 56-year-old grandmother who is raising two teenage daughters stopped by the market to pick up some sweet potatoes and fresh greens. A housecleaner who is paid under the table by two prominent Roanoke families, she makes ends meet through her jobs and by the $350 in SNAP benefits she gets for her family of three, she said. She has never applied for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the short-term government program for the poor (in a former state, broadly known as “welfare”), even though she would likely qualify.

“I think some people abuse the system, period,” she said, but doesn’t consider herself among them. “I struggle so hard,” she said, asking not to be named so as not to jeopardize her family’s benefits.

She’d like to get an aboveboard job but struggles because she has a felony record related to a domestic dispute with the father of her grandchildren, who is now in prison, she said.

Based on a description of her case, Martin, the social services manager, believes she is likely reporting her pay to DSS but not to the Internal Revenue Service. (The two agencies don’t share data.)

Another common method of SNAP fraud occurs when applicants misrepresent the number of children and adults in a household to bump up the SNAP benefit — not reporting the presence of a working parent or unrelated adult in the household, for instance, he said. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office estimated that $2.2 billion in SNAP benefits were paid in error, out of the annual $50.4 billion distributed that year.

At the Roanoke Rescue Mission, which has seen an uptick in the number of children for both lodging and meals, managers have mixed feelings about SNAP.

“I feel there’s a definite need for assistance, but I don’t know if it’s managed properly,” said Anders Sylvester-Johnson, director of programs.

“Maybe they should designate what you buy, but maybe no sodas and chips?” volunteered Kim Gembala, director of administration. She worries, though, that general cuts to the program will result in children eating cheaper and less nutritional food, noting that she’s seen a stark increase in kids and teens with high blood pressure and diabetes.

“It’s hard to get your head around, that the roly-poly kid is actually malnourished, but we see that here,” said CEO Joy Sylvester-Johnson.

In response, cafeteria workers no longer allow children to select their own foods or skip the veggies. Instead, they make their plates for them, offering choices such as carrots or green beans. They eliminated pastries from the breakfast offerings and desserts from lunch.

“I don’t know what the fix is,” Anders Sylvester-Johnson said. “But abandoning children isn’t it.” Children represent more than half of all SNAP recipients nationwide.

Burgess, of the 82nd Airborne/Christian Soldiers Food Pantry, views the conundrum this way: “I see [fraud] sometimes myself and have often said, ‘If you’re going to feed the needy, then you’re going to feed the greedy.’ But the government’s in our same boat: If you’re too stringent, there are adults and children out there in genuine need who will be hurt” by more stringent regulations.

A bottle of ketchup

At the Community Storehouse in the Henry County hamlet of Ridgeway, manager Travis Adkins can divine what some people used to do by their ailments — humpbacks among women who sat over sewing machines, missing fingers among the men who culled lumber or tailed machinery in the once-flourishing furniture factories.

“We’re the last, last, last resort, to stand in line for hours to get a box of old food,” Adkins said.

Boxes of donated food from Walmart and Food Lion stores, most of it near expiration, sit in a serpentine line in the storehouse’s back room atop an old Pannill Knitting conveyor belt. Its reuse is a fitting metaphor for Virginia’s former industrial powerhouse, a region that now holds the highest unemployment rate in the state, prompted by international trade agreements and the resulting annihilation of nearly half the area jobs.

“When we first started back in 2001, it was mainly laid-off factory workers. But now it’s younger people too,” said 79-year-old volunteer James Bowman, a retired construction worker at DuPont, whose staggered layoffs and ultimate closure eliminated 1,800 jobs.

Like food-bank and SNAP workers across the region, volunteer intake manager Evalyn Chapman reports record use, including many new faces in the crowd: people whose unemployment extensions have finally expired and still haven’t found work, and non-elderly disabled people (Martinsville/Henry County’s disability rates are twice the state average, mirroring national trends in trade-slammed areas). For the first time, she regularly sees people showing up with electric bills in hand to prove residence — that are past due and marked in red.

“This is the first year people have told me, ‘I don’t have any food in my house,’ and they’re sincere,” Chapman said.

Lisa Turner, a 32-year-old mother of two, says her Supplemental Security Income-disability check covers rent and utilities, but the $150 she gets in SNAP typically lasts just two weeks. (On Nov. 1, her allotment was reduced to $130.) During a late-October visit to the storehouse from her home in Bassett, Turner described having a single bottle of ketchup in her refrigerator and a half-container of icing.

“We had Hamburger Helper for dinner last night, but my neighbor had to give me both the hamburger and the milk for the sauce,” she said.

Turner said she used to work in an elastic factory in Stuart but went on disability because of bipolar mental illness and fibromyalgia.

Not far from Turner in the line, 70-year-old retiree Janet Johnson said she makes $11 too much from her Social Security benefits to qualify for SNAP. Nonetheless, the retired M&W Window worker from Franklin County uses area food banks to supplement the meals she cooks for herself and her elderly parents, who live next to her in a small family enclave in Sontag.

Charles and Mabel Pullen, 95 and 97 respectively, are retired from Stanley and Bassett furniture companies. Before finding factory work they sharecropped tobacco in Sontag, and after retirement Mabel watched children in her home, a modest bungalow with large cultivated patches of mustard and turnip greens and a chicken coop out back. (Technically, the community is called Hickman, they said, but the sign fell a few years ago, and no one put it back up.)

“They qualify for food stamps, but you talk about pride!” their daughter said. The food stamp participation rate, which measures the percentage of people who choose to apply for the SNAP benefits they qualify for, is 83.7 percent in Franklin County, up from 64.5 percent in 2006.

In Roanoke, that number jumped from 67 percent to 99 percent during the same seven-year span, following a national trend and mirror a tipping point in which the need for food outweighs pride.

But not at the Pullen house — not yet, anyway.

“Nobody on earth has worked as hard as my momma,” Johnson said from her parents’ kitchen the following week. “I don’t care how tired she was. She’d come home and cook on the wood stove, make the fire, the whole bit.”

“I’d go to the spring and get water too,” Mabel added, while her daughter whisked up gravy from scratch, then fried breakfast eggs.

In addition to food-bank visits in Ridgeway and Rocky Mount, Johnson keeps a close eye on the sales circulars. When their chickens aren’t laying, they buy their eggs from Walgreen’s for 99 cents. They grow a full garden in the summer, and can tomato sauce and apples.

“It’s been a long time since we been down low,” Johnson said, referring to sharecropping, back when they lived in “shacks that should’ve been condemned 10 years before we got there” and sometimes went days without food.

“It’s not easy with the food prices going up, but we’re surviving,” she added. “It might not be what you want, but we got food.”

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