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Families, agencies brace for big food stamp cuts
Programs funding is in jeopardy while Congress considers farm bill changes
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The point of desperation for Jeff Bagwell happened more than a year ago when he came home from his job delivering pizzas to find all his wife and two kids had to eat was peanut butter and ramen noodles.

The Bagwell family gets help from food stamps through a federal program called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but that help is in jeopardy.

Food stamp recipients already face a reduction of about $27 a month in assistance starting later this year because of a stimulus program that is expiring. But the fate of future funding for the program is up in the air as Congress debates cuts to the program’s budget, some U.S. House leaders advocating tens of billions in deeper cuts.

“It would be really hard,” Allie Bagwell, Jeff’s wife, said if the family’s benefits were significantly reduced. “For starters, we wouldn’t be able to eat nearly as healthy as we do now because healthy food is more expensive.”

The Senate passed a bill in June that reduced the SNAP program by about $4 billion over the next 10 years. House Republicans are preparing legislation that would cut food stamps by as much as $4 billion annually, or $40 billion in the next decade, after failing to pass a farm bill that included $2 billion in annual cuts over the same time period.

“There were those that thought the cuts were too much and there was those who thought the cuts weren’t enough,” said Laura Lester, director of Advocacy and Education for the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “The defeat, from our perspective, was a victory.”

The food bank finds more than 45 million pounds of food and groceries each year and distributes it to more than 600 nonprofit partner agencies serving families and individuals in 29 metro Atlanta and north Georgia counties. Georgia Mountain Food Bank, located in Gainesville, is an affiliate of the Atlanta group.

9th District U.S. Rep. Doug Collins said cuts to welfare programs are desperately needed to address the nation’s debt and lagging economy. He also said Congress must make substantial cuts to rid the program of waste and abuse.

“Food stamp participation has doubled since 2008, and we now have an opportunity for us to address that major concern,” the Gainesville Republican said in an emailed statement. “I remain committed to the ideal of a true farm bill that protects our farmers and ignites the economic engine that is Georgia’s agricultural industry.”

The economic downturn peaked in 2008 and the recovery has been slower than many people had hoped, causing massive unemployment and throwing many more people in poverty.

The Bagwells moved to Habersham County in October 2010 from Houston to be near Jeff’s side of the family and to enjoy a lower cost of living. However, he has worked odd jobs and temporary positions since the family moved. He’s currently working a temp job in the warehouse of the Georgia Mountain Food Bank.

“Finding a stable job for Jeff has been difficult, although he has a great one now,” his wife, Allie, said. “It has been a struggle. Everything through temporary agencies out here, it seems.”

The Bagwells receive about $367 in food stamps a month. Allie Bagwell qualifies for the Women, Infants and Children program, which is supplemental program for low-income pregnant, breast-feeding and postpartum women. Infants and children under the age of 5 also are eligible. The Bagwells’ son is 6 years old and their daughter is 3. The couple is expecting another child in October.

Bagwell said he’s grateful to earn $12 an hour at his current position. If he keeps the job, he’ll make about $23,000 a year in gross income, which for a family of four is slightly below 2013 federal poverty guidelines. He made $10 an hour at a previous job and found it hard to make ends meet.

“It’s almost undoable,” he said. “It was extremely hard to tell our kids we couldn’t go take them somewhere because we didn’t have the gas money to go to the river or the lake.”

The U.S. spent about $71 billion for the SNAP program in fiscal year 2011, a nearly 11 percent increase compared with the year earlier, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture 2011 report. The average monthly assistance was $133.85 per person and $284 per household.

Two million people in Georgia received food stamps in January 2012, meaning $2 billion in federal funds went to the state, according to a fact sheet on Georgia’s Department of Human Services website. The average Georgian’s monthly benefit was $208, $526 for a household of three.

“Honestly the food stamps are a big help,” Allie Bagwell said. “We generally spend on top of our food stamp money, probably $150 to $200 a month.”

The stay-at-home mom said she home-schools her kids to help save money on gas and day care services.

Local food banks and anti-poverty advocates say these cuts could be catastrophic to local families and to agencies and churches that help provide some assistance to the needy. The amount of people needing government assistance, including boxes of food, has increased, with the state reporting the average number of Georgians receiving food stamps annually rose from about 947,000 in 2007 to 1.8 million in 2011.

Lester said the Atlanta food bank’s distribution has gone up 85 percent over the past four years. The private sector has reached its limit and gone past it, she said.

“If and when those benefits are cut, then it going to ramp it up further onto us,” said Kay Blackstock, executive director of Georgia Mountain Food Bank, an affiliate of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “As charitable organizations, we don’t know where the resources will come from for us to be able to take up the slack.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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