As they entered the Serving Hands Food Distribution late last week, Islanders were confronted with a notice: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps, were being cut.
“People were devastated because they didn’t know it was coming,” said Betty Burton, president of the Vineyard Committee on Hunger.
As of the first of the month, families and individuals receiving SNAP benefits will see a decrease in their monthly aid from the federal government. Assistance will return to pre-recession levels now that the temporary boost to the SNAP program written into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus bill, has expired. An estimated 400 Islanders will be affected by the change, which amounts to a $36 decrease per month for a family of four.
Sarah Kuh, program director at the Vineyard Health Care Access Program, who helps Islanders register for public benefits, called the cuts “immoral.”
“In order to qualify for SNAP, you have to be very low income and people need every dollar that they get from SNAP benefits to try to survive,” Ms. Kuh said.
Many current SNAP recipients already supplement the money with visits to the food pantry and Serving Hands. Now, with fewer dollars to stretch over the month, those visits may increase. Armen Hanjian, program coordinator of the Island Food Pantry, said he guesses that his program would see more demand as a result of the cuts, but it was too early to tell for sure.
Across Massachusetts, one in seven residents receives SNAP benefits each month. A majority of these people are children and elderly.
“Who can justify taking SNAP benefits from a poor elderly person who needs to maintain their nutrition and their health?” Ms. Kuh said, adding: “You could say the same for every person on the program.”
Last Friday, the Island Food Pantry, located at the Stone Church in Vineyard Haven, served 47 families. On Monday, an additional 28 people came to the pantry.
People can visit the Island Food Pantry once every two weeks, collecting three bags of food per visit.
One bag contains basic nonperishable foods, another is filled with fruits and vegetables, and a third has miscellaneous foodstuffs.
Once a month, Food Pantry clients can then travel to Spring street to visit the Serving Hands pantry at the First Baptist Church, held on the Friday after the fourth Thursday of the month, year-round. Serving Hands is supplied by the Greater Boston Food Bank, which transports food to the Island by truck.
Visitors to the Stone Church pantry are asked to indicate on a form whether they receive food stamps, but many in need do not qualify because the income guidelines are low considering the high cost of living, Ms. Kuh said. “We are way under-subscribed,” Ms. Burton said. “People don’t always qualify for SNAP, but since our cost of living is 60 per cent above the rest of the state . . . so they are still the working poor.”
After the recession hit, Serving Hands experienced a dramatic increase in visits, Ms. Burton said. “We had this huge increase in people, and it has never gone down, it’s just getting bigger each year,” she said.
Last year, there were 150 documented cases of homelessness on the Vineyard, said Connie Teixeira, Dukes County associate commissioner for the homeless. When Ms. Teixeira started in her position in 2009, she knew of four individuals who experienced chronic homelessness. Since the economic recession, that number has increased dramatically. “It’s so terrible that we need to do something about it,” she said. There is no homeless shelter on the Island, so Ms. Teixeira arranges for people without shelter to travel to Hyannis, or places them in temporary housing here.
The number of clients served at the Island Food Pantry has also increased considerably in the past decade. In the fall, winter and spring of 1998-1999, the food pantry served an average of 38 individuals per week. By this spring, that number had grown to 95 visits.
While the temporary increase to SNAP was intended to carry people through the recession, many Islanders still have not recovered fully. “There are a lot of people still looking for work,” Ms. Kuh said.
She said an added blow is the timing. Cuts are going into effect at a time when a greater portion of the population is unemployed and when household utility costs skyrocket. Last November, Serving Hands fed 190 families, providing each with a turkey dinner as a part of its family-to-family Thanksgiving meal sponsorship.
“It’s really perfect, SNAP cuts coming in November, and this meal of the bounty which people will now not be able to partake of,” Ms. Burton said with irony.
Still more cuts are on the way. Farm bills under discussion by the House and the Senate both call for further, lasting reductions in SNAP assistance.
Food donations for the Island Food Pantry can be dropped off at the Island supermarkets. Checks made out to Island Food Pantry can be mailed to P.O. Box 1874, Vineyard Haven, MA, 02568. To donate to the Family to Family Thanksgiving dinner program, call Betty Burton at 508-693-5339.