SANTA FE, N.M. — Organizations that help provide food to hungry New Mexicans normally see increased demand over the holidays, but now they’re bracing for even more requests for help as food stamp reductions kick in this month.
“A lot of food pantries currently are saying they are stretched and would find it very difficult to do more than they are doing,” said Sherry Hooper, executive director of The Food Depot, which provides food to agencies in nine northern New Mexico counties.
The cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, which took effect with this month’s allocation, total $5 billion nationally. And it’s estimated that U.S. charities provide about $5 billion worth of food aid annually.
To make up for the SNAP cuts, those charities would have to double their efforts – something that’s pretty unlikely, Hooper noted.
Most food pantry officials it’s too early to determine the effect of the benefits cuts. But, they add, despite what we hear about the economy picking up, there’s been no slowdown in people looking for help.
“We’re 11.5 percent ahead of last year at this time as far as households served,” said Paul D’Arcy, chairperson of Bag ‘n Hand Food Pantry, which distributes groceries from St. John’s United Methodist Church in Santa Fe.
He said 2011 was the year most aid was distributed, and now “we’ll probably exceed 2011 by the end of the year.” Some 240 to 250 households get help each week, he said. And while most of them live in Santa Fe County, some come from as far as Abiquiu, Pecos or Las Vegas, N.M., according to D’Arcy.
“With SNAP cut back, I’m assuming we’re going to see more activity,” he added.
From this month through September 2014, the cutback will mean a loss of $47 million in money for food going to 442,000 New Mexicans, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Maximum monthly benefits – payment levels are adjusted depending on a family’s circumstances – will be reduced from $200 to $189 for one person, and $668 to $632 for a family of four.
Even as greater demand is anticipated, Santa Fe’s biggest food pantry, Food for Santa Fe, has had to reduce the bags of groceries it distributes at 1222 Siler Road from 900 to 600 per week, according to Susan Odiseos, board president. That cutback occurred in mid-September to keep the program from operating in the red – a situation that develops partly due to the fact that the bulk of monetary donations come in November and December, she noted.
Yet, she still sees new people coming in for help.
“Last Thursday, I had three people ask me how to get out of the parking lot,” she said. “They said it was their first time coming to our pantry’s drive-up line.” Recently, she added, “a woman came by after we had given out all our food. She said this was the third place (she had been to) that gives out food that had run out,” Odiseos said. “It’s heart-breaking.”
Food for Santa Fe hasn’t had any bags left over from its Thursday morning distributions since last summer, she said, adding, “I know we’re not the only ones living on the edge.”
Susan Tarver, executive director of Bienvenidos Outreach, said of the SNAP cuts, “I think I’m going to see a lot more people.” People in this program come in two times a month for food boxes at that agency, located at 1511 Fifth St.
“Right now, we’re averaging 350-400 boxes a week,” she said. She’s expecting to give out 525 food boxes with turkeys for Thanksgiving this year, compared to about 300 two years ago.
But Tarver has seen demand grow well before this month’s SNAP cuts.
“I really started noticing (an increase in applications for help) around January,” she said.
She particularly noticed more seniors coming in for help in the last two years, she added. “Some of them are Depression-era people who are not used to asking for help, but their Social Security checks are not big enough to meet the demands,” such as both food and medicine, Tarver said.
And some may share a situation she herself, as well as an assistant and a volunteer, have experienced, she said.
They were all in situations where they had good health insurance and healthy retirement savings, but their or a family member’s serious illness, even with insurance coverage, wiped out their savings, Tarver said.
“I’m lucky I still have my home over my head,” Tarver said. “I just anticipate seeing more and more of that … I have so much in common with a lot of these people. It’s eye-opening.”
These pantries buy some food from monetary donations, and some of them get federal commodities and some groceries from The Food Depot.
Hooper said her food bank saw a 30 percent increase in demand after the recession hit in 2008. But it hasn’t declined since then.
A new building that opened this year has increased their food capacity by about 20 percent and volunteer hours by 18 percent to 950 hours per month. “With the new facility, we’re allowed to bring in a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables, since we have more cold storage,” she said.
Last year, the food bank distributed 3.6 million pounds of food and this year expects to distribute 4.1 to 4.2 million, Hooper said. It has a mobile food pantry program that began in 2009 in rural communities, and currently is particularly targeting additional sites in San Miguel and Colfax counties, she said.
“We’re looking at ways we can be a little more creative in the way we distribute food,” she said.