Food stamp stimulus hike to terminate

The benefits rollback will affect more than 4,000 families in the Walla Walla area

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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WALLA WALLA — A temporary increase in food stamps is to expire Oct. 31, rolling back Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program amounts to what they were four years ago.

More than 4,000 households in Walla Walla County receive food stamps, equaling $1.08 million, said John Wiley, spokesman for Department of Social and Health Services in Eastern Washington. Nationwide, 47 million Americans a month, almost half of them children and teenagers, rely on the program to help put food on the table.

Upcoming food giveaway

A joint food giveaway by Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank and Second Harvest of Spokane will be held 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Oct. 22 in Walla Walla at Washington Park, at the corner of North Ninth Avenue and West Cherry Street. Participants must self-declare a low-income status and bring bags or boxes for the food.

Households will see a reduction of about $29 a month, Wiley said Thursday.

“No one is getting kicked off,” he said. “This returns the amount to what it was in April of 2009.”

That’s when an increase in food benefits was put in place during the worst of the Great Recession.

“People were losing jobs,” Wiley said. “A lot of people were coming into food stamp programs.”

The federal stimulus fed $45.2 billion into SNAP, raising monthly benefit of $588 a month to $668 for an average four-person household. In November, that same family will start getting $632 a month, about a 5 percent cut. Benefits fluctuate based on food prices, income and inflation.

In Walla Walla County, the number of households enrolled in the food assistance program have been declining, Wiley said. In August 2012 the county managed 4,701 SNAP cases. That fell to 4,334 cases in August this year, he said.

Nonetheless, a need for food help here persists and is growing, said Gail McGhee, manager of the Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank.

She and her volunteers sent 86,268 pounds of food out the door to help feed 1,211 households in August — a time of year the demand on the food bank used to be a little less, she said. The BMAC warehouse sends food to food pantries in Walla Walla and Waitsburg.

“We’re already being impacted by (the food stamp cut) — because it is coming,” McGhee said. “And our shelves are bare. Seriously, they are bare.”

Apart from the stimulus rollback, the House voted to cut almost $4 billion a year from the roughly $80 billion-a-year SNAP program in an effort to find savings in the budget. A Senate bill would cut around $400 million a year.

McGhee said she is grateful the annual Walla Walla Realtors “Care and Share” food drive will help restock shelves later this month, as well as for the fresh produce local supermarkets contribute and the turkeys and hams that come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Yet, to be out of donated soups and vegetables is a new turn for the worse, McGhee said.

“I don’t know if there is donor burnout or if people absolutely don’t have it give anymore,” she said. “But if everybody in Walla Walla County gave one can of food, that would feed a lot of people.”

The expiration of the stimulus bump comes as many families continue to struggle with joblessness. Census figures from September show poverty remains stuck at around 22 percent.

The coming winter heating season could also cause setbacks for families. In cold weather states, even a slight decrease in food stamp benefits can force decisions between heating and eating.

Local fuel prices, however, are dropping, according to Bob Castoldi, energy assistance program coordinator for Blue Mountain Action Council. Through federal and state funding, his office helps 700-900 low-income families in Walla Walla, Garfield and Columbia counties with utilities every winter.

“Oil prices are expected to be lower, and gas is definitely lower. Pacific Power has asked for another rate increase, and that’s pending, but we don’t know if they’ll get what they’ve asked for. They usually don’t.”

The current federal government shut down, though, will determine when federal dollars for energy assistance will be released, Castoldi added.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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