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Overburdened NJ Food Pantries Challenged to Feed More Hungry Clients

Changes in federal utility allowance could mean less to eat for third of families now receiving food assistance

Credit: Center for Food Action
Fresh produce is an important part of a balanced diet for clients at food pantries.

Food pantries across the state, already seeing record numbers of clients, are bracing for another increase now that hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents are facing cuts in their federal food assistance benefits.

The change in eligibility, which will affect about a third of the families now receiving assistance, is the result of the cancellation of a utility allowance for about 159,000 New Jersey families.

The allowance let SNAP beneficiaries claim utility costs against their income and thus increase their benefits. It was scrapped July 1 and will hit individual families as their food stamp recertification occurs.

The likely result: more people visiting pantries and many needing to visit them more often, pantry organizers. It comes in the wake of a series of other cuts that are currently stressing the emergency food system.

The November expiration of a temporary expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the January expiration of extended unemployment benefits, along with residual effects of Hurricane Sandy, already have resulted in growing numbers seeking help from places like the CUMAC/ECHO in Paterson, the Center for Food Action in Bergen County, and smaller pantries around the state.

The cancellation of the allowance is expected to cost SNAP beneficiaries an average of about $90 per food stamp recipient household per month and could have been prevented, according to anti-hunger advocates. They blame the Christie administration for not taking advantage of -- either administratively or in conjunction with the Legislature -- a federal energy assistance program that would have qualified the SNAP families for the energy allowance.

Instead, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a budget provision that would have increased access to the federal Low-Income Heating and Electricity Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and has taken no action on other possible solutions.

The provision, written by Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), called for every family that currently receives some aid from LIHEAP to have their stipends increased to at least $21 annually so that they could qualify for the energy allowance under SNAP. The resolution was not attached to specific spending, but called for the expanded LIHEAP program to be paid for through unspent federal and state utility aid. LIHEAP funding is given to states as a block grant and states administer the grants and set parameters for distribution. Many states have been making nominal payments to people living in rental facilities whose rents cover their utility costs.

A companion bill (A-2956/S-1893] passed both houses of the Legislature and awaits action by the governor. It passed 36-1 in the Senate and 60-13 in the Assembly and was sponsored by Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) and Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) in the upper chamber and Gabriela Mosquera (D-Gloucester), Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), Gary Schaer (D-Bergen), Mila Jasey (D-Essex), and Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) in the lower.

A Growing Hunger

Advocates say soup kitchens, food pantries, and food banks around the state are expecting more requests at a time when food agencies already are dealing with increased need.

“There is no way for us to brace for this,” said Adele LaTourette of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, who also serves as the legislative director for the Center for Food Action in Bergen County. CFA has seven pantries throughout the county and an eighth in Passaic County.

“That is the issue. The bracing is -- well, we don’t have the capacity to brace. Pantries and food banks and soup kitchens do the best to make up for the loss (in government aid). But that will be an enormous task and I am not sure it is a manageable task.”

The LIHEAP language in the budget and the LIHEAP bill were responses to changes in federal SNAP eligibility rules. Eligibility for the allowance -- sometimes referred to as “heat and eat” -- was tightened when the federal farm bill was passed earlier this year. Previously, states could provide nominal utility aid under LIHEAP to low-income renters who paid their utility costs in their rent.

The eligibility changes are likely to hit those in subsidized housing hardest – mostly seniors and the disabled -- because their utility costs generally are included in their rent payments. In the past, the state provided from $1 to $5 in annual aid to these households, which qualified them for the utility allowance. The allowance is similar to a tax deduction -- it lowers an applicant’s income level and the lower income is then used to judge eligibility and the level of benefits.

About 15 states -- including New Jersey -- took advantage of the provision, paying out between $1 and $5 per household. The farm bill increased the LIHEAP minimums to $20 a year, which is expected to affect an estimated 850,000 households nationally, according to budget watchdog groups.

There were 438,816 households and 876,323 New Jerseyans, 410,437 of whom are children, enrolled in SNAP in April, according to state figures. New Jersey has one of the largest populations of SNAP recipients in the country.

Expanding the stipend would cost between $3 million and $7 million, most of which could be covered by using unspent federal block grants , according to the fiscal statement attached to A-2956, “suggesting that between 150,000 and 350,000 households may be affected.” Advocacy groups say the cuts are likely to affect 159,000 households, though that is just an estimate. There are no estimates for how many individuals will be affected, though advocates say that a third of all beneficiaries may see some kind of cut -- or nearly 300,000 New Jersey residents. About 40 percent of SNAP recipients live in Essex, Hudson, and Passaic counties.

Senate Democrats say that seven states, including Pennsylvania and New York, have expanded SNAP stipends to ensure that benefits will not be cut.

The governor’s veto statement did not rule out expansion of the program. Instead, it called the language in the budget “unnecessary to effectuate the proposed change.”

However, the statement also said “it would be inappropriate to restrict prematurely and improperly the Administration’s ability to administer the underlying programs in the manner proposed in this language.” The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the veto or the bill.

The latest benefit reductions will only exacerbate an already growing problem, advocates said. The temporary increase in SNAP benefits authorized by the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus bill, expired in November and resulted in a cut of about $90 million total in SNAP benefits in New Jersey. That cut reduced the average monthly benefit per person in New Jersey from $150 to $121 and the average meal from $1.50 to $1.35, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank.

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey conducted a voluntary survey this spring to see whether the SNAP cuts -- and the cutoff of extended unemployment benefits -- were having an impact on its approximately 1,000 member food banks. The survey, which was voluntary, found that most -- 85 percent of the 190 pantries that responded -- have been experiencing increased need, with many cutting back on the hours they are open and the amount and kind of food they provide.

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