A national reduction in food assistance benefits, along with the impending winter months, has local organizations preparing for an influx of folks who need help filling their cabinets and stomachs.

A national reduction in food assistance benefits, along with the impending winter months, has local organizations preparing for an influx of folks who need help filling their cabinets and stomachs.

“With the onset of cuts to the national food assistance program, we expect to see an increase of people coming through our doors, requesting help,” said Kaneisha Trott, a spokeswoman for First State Community Action Agency in Georgetown, which maintains a year round food pantry. “We’re not sure what to expect.”

Clients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food to millions of low-income individuals and families across the country, saw a reduction in their benefits starting Friday.

According to Elaine Archangelo, director of Social Services for the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, President Barack Obama included a SNAP benefit boost in his 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The 13.6 percent boost was set to expire on Oct. 31, 2013.

“It was always intended to be a stimulus boost and was never part of the base of the SNAP benefit,” Archangelo said. “But people lost track of that because it’s been in effect for four years.”

The reduction, just like the benefits, varies depending on income, household size and expenses. In Delaware, where 154,000 people utilize SNAP benefits, officials have estimated an average per person decrease of $9.50, according to Archangelo.

“For some, that may seem like a small amount, but it could buy three half-gallons of milk or two boxes of cereal, and those things are kind of pricey in the market,” she said. “People may need to tap into some additional food resources, especially the most vulnerable people with the lowest disposable cash income.”

Archangelo said the DHSS fully expects its community partners and other organizations that provide food to the hungry to feel the impact of the benefit cuts.

“We know people are going to feel this loss,” she said. “We hear already from our community partners that SNAP recipients tap their resources at the end of month. We alerted SNAP clients in September that this was coming and asked that if they cannot manage this loss, they call Delaware 211 to see what resources are available to them.”

Food insecurity

Every year, the national organization Feeding America conducts the study “Map the Meal Gap,” which identifies food insecurity on a county level. The most recent study available was conducted in 2011 and revealed that 10.1 percent, or roughly 19,590 Sussex County residents were considered food insecure.

According to Kim Turner, a spokeswoman for the Food Bank of Delaware, “food insecurity” is a measure developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It’s a lack of access at times to enough food for an active healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods,” Turner said.

Another yearly study conducted by the national organization Food Research and Action Center showed that in 2012, Delaware was ranked 12th worst in the nation for food hardship among households with children.

“Hunger in America,” another study conducted by Feeding America, showed that in 2010, one in four, or 242,000, Delawareans utilize the Food Bank of Delaware’s Emergency Network.

Trott said the food pantry at First State in Georgetown is seeing increasing traffic each year. For example, the pantry served 141 families, or 285 individuals, last month, compared to 123 families, or 218 individuals, in October 2012.

“The numbers have been high every month and we’re seeing more and more record numbers,” Trott said. “We expect to serve more people this year compared to last year and the year before.”

Archangelo said while the economy is recovering and more people are employed, most are working for lower wages and therefore still experience food hardship.

“Part of the issue is people are not gaining wage ground and are still qualifying for benefits because they are struggling to meet their basic needs every month,” she said. “Food is a basic need and people who are vulnerable economically feel a loss like [the SNAP decrease], whereas someone on benefits will adjust better. The poorer you are, the harder it is to weather these changes.”

Hungry for the holidays

While residents utilize food assistance year round, Turner said the need tends to increase as the winter months ensue.

“This time of year, hunger is more on peoples’ minds because the holiday season is approaching and nobody wants to see a family go without,” she said. “Also, with the cold winter months, a lot of people have to choose between buying groceries and paying the heat bill.”

Across the country, community organizations and businesses step up during the holiday months to ensure local families don’t go hungry.

Thanksgiving for Thousands, an effort sponsored by the Millsboro-based Mountaire Farms, is in its 19th year. According to Roger Marino, a spokesman for Mountaire, the food drive fills 7,500 boxes that are distributed to Delmarva organizations and churches, who in turn re-distribute to those in need. The boxes contain all the fixings for a holiday meal, including Mountaire roasters.

Last weekend, volunteers stood outside of grocery stores distributing leaflets to shoppers asking them to purchase and donate food to the Thanksgiving for Thousands effort. Marino said this one-day event generally fills about 5,000 boxes and Mountaire purchases the remaining food from a grocery store that will give the company the best price without losing money.

“It’s really a win-win for the stores, and it’s fun for the volunteers,” Marino said.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving – this year Nov. 25 – 400 volunteers will flock to the Millsboro facility to pack the 7,500 boxes. The next day, the boxes are shipped out in refrigerated Mountaire trucks to various drop-off locations.

Marino said he’s been working with Thanksgiving for Thousands since the beginning, when the company only packed 300 boxes of food. As the years passed and the need increased, Marino said Mountaire had to up the ante.

“Even with 7,500 boxes, we still can’t satisfy the need,” Marino said. “It doesn’t take an economist to know there’s a problem, and it’s a growing problem, not only in our community, but everywhere.”