Food banks across the nation, and the millions of low-income people who turn to them for help, are still reeling from the effects of an unusually cold and snowy winter season, according to Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger-relief organization.
The harsh winter, combined with the November 2013 cut of $5 billion in fiscal year 2014 to the food stamp program (now officially named the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), is proving to be a debilitating combination for families who struggle with hunger. The November cuts to the food stamp program were due to the expiration of a boost in SNAP benefits through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Additional cuts to SNAP will go into effect in several states later this year.
"The record cold this winter has forced people in our community to make a very difficult, very sobering choice – paying for food or paying for heat. For someone who is hungry, every extra dollar spent on utilities often means one less dollar to spend on food. And, at a time when 1 in 6 people in our community is hungry, that's a reality that thousands of our neighbors must face every single day," said Kate Maehr, executive director and CEO of Greater Chicago Food Depository, a Feeding America member food bank.
Those struggles are common at the 61,000 food pantries, shelters and soup kitchens around the country served by a Feeding America member food bank.
"A number of our food banks have reported that the food pantries and kitchens they serve have seen a marked increase in the number of people seeking assistance this winter. Higher heating costs, lost wages, missed school days, the November 1 cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and a variety of other weather-related problems have made life very tough for many of the people who rely on us to feed themselves and their families," said Bob Aiken, CEO of Feeding America."Spring is officially just around the corner, but the consequences of this brutal winter will continue to be felt for months to come. For families living on the margins, the bitter cold felt by much of the country triggered a cascade of increased hardship."
According to the Energy Information Administration, the price of natural gas – used to heat over half of U.S. homes – jumped nearly 30 percent in January alone, and rising propane costs forced many households to pay $200 or more for propane compared to last year.
"We know that many people who come to us for help have extremely low household incomes. About 50 percent of households receiving SNAP benefits, for example, have incomes that are less than half the federal poverty level – less than $10,000 annually for a family of three – so any spike in heating costs can make a big dent in the amount of money they have left to purchase food," Aiken said.
Here are some other anecdotes from around the Feeding America Network:
"After severe weather forced us to cancel several Mobile Pantry distributions, we were finally able to schedule one inside a large barn at our county fairgrounds. It was such a cold day that the temperature inside the barn was only 11 degrees, but a surprising number of people stood in a very long line for a food. This indicates that there is great need here in Lafayette. We have seen a steady increase in clients since the cuts to food stamps in November. They often tell us that they cannot afford to purchase food, pay for heat and put gas in their car. We have also had reports of rural families that have been unable to afford to have their propane tanks refilled. This winter has been harsh in many ways," said Katy O'Malley Bunder, executive director of Food Finders Food Bank in Lafayette, Indiana.
"It's been an incredibly cold and snowy winter in Delaware," said Food Bank of Delaware President and CEO Patricia Beebe."In fact, January 2014 ranked as one of the coldest since our state began keeping records. Increased utility costs, coupled with missed school meals as a result of snow days and cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, have created a perfect storm here in Delaware."
St. John's Sack Lunch Program in Fort Smith, Arkansas was forced to close down three times in February, when icy conditions made the roads too unsafe for volunteers to drive to the facility. Volunteer Judith Stilwell said,"When our program skips a meal service, there are easily 100 people who had no other option for a meal, and they will going without food. This is especially heartbreaking after they have trudged on foot through harsh weather, only to find out there was no food service." The program distributed 3,250 sack lunches in February.
A food pantry at the Church of Christ in the small town of Maysville, Kentucky reports that the number of families showing up for food nearly doubled during some weeks in January and February.
The Northeast Iowa Food Bank said that hundreds of homes in the Waterloo area have had water pipes freeze and burst. Barb Prather, executive director of the Northeast Iowa Food Banks said,"We have distributed thousands of bottles of water to people who have been living in homes without running water for weeks and weeks. Replacing and repairing these pipes will be a huge burden for the people who come to us for help. We have also been told that as the weather improves and the ground begins to thaw, more broken water pipes, now encased in ice, will be revealed. This is a crisis that will just get worse."
To learn how you can help out in your community, visit http://www.feedingamerica.org/
Please contact one of our media representatives or call 800-771-2303