At a time of rising food prices, the 8,000-plus residents of Monroe County who rely on food stamps to put meals on the table will have less to eat because of cuts to the program.
Beginning Friday, recipients of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) began absorbing a $5 billion reduction in the program, the result of the expiration of the fiscal stimulus legislation passed in 2009. The amount cut from each recipient depends on a number of variables, but a ballpark estimate is the cuts will amount to the equivalent of taking away about 21 meals per month for a family of four.
Nationally, the Department of Agriculture places the number of people on food stamps at 47 million, including 22 million children and 9 million people with a serious disability.
Locally, professionals who work with the needy are bracing for the worst.
"It's not really going to affect the health department directly, but it will probably affect the school system," said Wendy Holifield, a registered dietician with the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County. "I can see these cuts putting more demand on the school lunch program. They may need to look at who qualifies for school meals, and relax those rules somewhat."
Food Service Supervisor Deb Stecklein doesn't think the SNAP cuts will have a huge effect on school lunches, however, as not everyone who qualifies for free or reduced price lunches is actually participating in the program.
"Presently, all students who are eligible to participate do not," said Stecklein, who is also a registered dietician. "As a result, we could see a slight increase in the number of participants but I don't expect it to be high."
As far as changing the eligibility requirements, that's out of her hands, Stecklein said.
"They're set by the federal government, not by us," she said. "People tell us their income, and we tell you if you're eligible based on federal guidelines. People on welfare are automatically eligible."
Lori Rittel, who serves as the county coordinator for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) sees tough times ahead for SNAP recipients.
"For low income people in the county these cuts are going to be fairly negative," Rittel said. "We're talking about people who already have to choose between food and medicine sometimes. Some of our WIC clients are also on food stamps, but I expect we're also going to see an influx of people coming into WIC. The problem of hunger isn't going to go away, simply because the government cuts the SNAP budget. People still have to eat, and will do what they have to do to find food."
Like Stecklein, Rittel said her program, which provides subsidized food to pregnant women and mothers with young children, has a little wiggle room to pick up some of the slack from the SNAP cuts.
"We're only at a 66.6 percent participation rate," Rittel said, "but I'm pretty sure we'll see that rate rising."
Another local who expects to feel the effects of the SNAP cuts at her organization is Stephanie Kaple, the supportive services director of the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition (FKOC) which operates the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry.
"We would definitely expect to see an increase in demand for foods from our pantry," Kaple said, "As so many are already on a fixed budget, especially our elderly, who must also manage the needs of medication and health costs, and families with small children who need to put together nutritious meals. But pantry foods only have a certain amount of nutritional value. We can't store fresh vegetables or meats."
The pantry also dispenses hygiene and personal care items, as well as nutritional drinks for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
"These are expensive items," Kaple said. "Ww're finding that most of the people using our pantry these days are working people who just don't have enough money to go shopping."