Just about everyone who receives monthly food help from the SNAP program, roughly one in every five New Mexicans, will see a cut in benefits when a piece of the stimulus package boosting that program ends in less than two months.
New Mexico’s most vulnerable adults, and nearly half of its children, use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
“It’ll be hard,” said Anna Martinez, 54, a disabled woman from the South Valley whose $53 in food stamps every month helps supplement her $985 in Social Security benefits. Together, that must pay for her $765 rent, plus household supplies and more than a dozen medications. She stands to see a reduction of close to $5 per month. “I don’t know how they expect people to survive,” she said, “especially if you can’t work.”
Even as SNAP benefits dip, Roadrunner Food Bank is beefing up its efforts to teach people who might qualify for benefits how to navigate the SNAP enrollment process, since thousands of eligible New Mexicans are not enrolled.
Roadrunner is also training its volunteers to show constituents how to sign up when they pick up food at distribution sites such as schools, churches and other community organizations, and it is training staff members of other community organizations on how to assist the people they serve in applying for SNAP.
The purpose of the training is to serve as a conduit between hungry people and SNAP, or, as Roadrunner spokeswoman Sonya Warwick puts it, “to get more groceries into the homes of hungry people to cover their food needs.”
1 in 5 in program
Currently around the country, an estimated 47 million to 48 million people receive SNAP benefits through the $80-billion-a-year program. In New Mexico, 442,000 people are on SNAP, or one in every 4.7 people.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the stimulus package, gave a temporary boost to SNAP by increasing maximum allotment benefits for food stamp recipients.
The ending of the stimulus package boost on Oct. 31 means a family of three receiving the maximum benefit of $526 a month would get $29 a month less, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that oversees SNAP.
Other cuts could come. A Senate billed passed in May would cut about $4.5 billion from the SNAP program by changing eligibility requirements. A farm bill failed to pass the House of Representatives in June that would have cut $21 billion from SNAP, according to reports.
A cut in benefits could lead to parents buying less expensive and less nutritious food for their children, nearly half of whom in the state benefit from the program. Forty-two percent of New Mexico’s kids, or about 215,000 children, receive SNAP benefits. That means New Mexico has the country’s highest percentage of kids who need help getting food on the table, according to the report, “Map the Meal Gap,” prepared and released earlier this summer by Feeding America, a national organization that works through a nationwide network of food banks such as Roadrunner.
What cuts could mean for children: “(Parents) are going to buy food that stretches out, that’s cheap,” said Veronica Garcia, executive director of Voices for Children, a nonprofit organization in Albuquerque that does research, education and advocacy on issues pertaining to the welfare of children.
“Oftentimes, you see more macaroni, rice, potatoes – foods that are not typically high-quality protein, produce or vegetables. So it has the opposite effect in what we would want. It makes it more difficult to have a nutritious diet.”
It will make it more difficult for Anna Martinez, and disabled people like her as well, come November.
She lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment and has three grown children, and says she takes 16 medications a day. She relies on her mother for rides, and she needs the help of an oxygen tank to breathe. Because of hereditary degenerative discs, chronic pain prevents her from standing for more than five minutes, let alone working. Four years ago, she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
Already, she is cutting corners. The $53 she gets each month on SNAP goes to purchase bread, beans, milk, eggs, eight cans of tuna and mayonnaise. “That takes me to fifty-three,” she said. “If I had enough for potatoes, I’d get potatoes.”
For cleaning supplies, she goes to a dollar store, and for garments, she looks for bargains. “I find stuff on clearance. I’ll find some blouses for $3, and I wear flip-flops all year long.” If she can afford it, she and her mother enjoy a $5 Chinese buffet once a month.
For the first time ever, in August, she also reached out for help from the Roadrunner Food Bank, which was distributing food at Holy Family Parish in the South Valley. More than 250 people showed up to receive food, some arriving at 4 a.m. to secure a place in line.
Standing conspicuously near the door where people entered, Jason Riggs held a white sign with SNAP information in red letters and a clipboard with the income levels a person would need to fall under in order to qualify.
He was hired as a SNAP Outreach Coordinator for Roadrunner in a position that began in February through a grant from Wal-Mart and at the suggestion of leaders at Feeding America, Roadrunner’s parent organization, which saw a need that local branches could try to fill.
Every week, Riggs goes to between one and five food distribution sites and has given out about 200 four-page applications, which he also offers to drop off for clients at the state’s Income Support Division office.
Barbara Kitchens, 56, was considering re-enrolling in SNAP. At Holy Family Parish, she received lemons, energy drinks, cabbage, canned soups, bread, beans and some fresh vegetables. After five knee replacements, chronic osteoarthritis pain keeps the former Wal-Mart greeter from working. She gets about $1,000 a month from Social Security.
Now that there’s no likelihood of her working again, she expects to qualify for SNAP if she reapplies. Of the money she has to juggle in order to cover living expenses, she says, “You really have to plan ahead. You never know when your car’s going to break.” For her, it’s always a game of “What can I do with this? What can I do with that?” she said.
Riggs said some people know how to navigate SNAP, but “there are other people who either don’t know about it, or it didn’t occur to them to sign up.”
“New Mexico has about an 81 percent participatory rate among eligible people,” he said. “There are thousands of people out there that aren’t applying.”
Last month, Roadrunner held a workshop for several volunteers who distribute food at schools and churches. They learned about the SNAP program’s history, myths and facts and the application process.
The next day, it held a focus group with Health Care for the Homeless and will train its case managers to do outreach, Riggs said. On Oct. 4, he will train staff members at New Mexico AIDS Services, a nonprofit organization that works with people who are HIV-positive or have AIDS.
Upcoming trainings will also occur at several churches that have food pantries, he said.