For some Gainesville residents such as Lisa, buying food for Thanksgiving means saving her food stamp money so she can contribute to her family’s meal.
She’s not alone. Lisa, whom The Times agreed not to identify, is one of the monthly average of 30,477 Hall County residents who received SNAP benefits in 2012, and one of the 31,888 who got assistance in September. All food stamp recipients saw their benefits cut this month after federal stimulus funding ended.
More than four years after the worst recession since the Great Depression ended, many people in Northeast Georgia are still struggling to put food on their table, some cannot afford to buy enough for a Thanksgiving feast. Food pantries are facing bare shelves because of high demand.
The average cost of a Thanksgiving feast for 10 people this year is $49.04, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
The tenuous situation could be made worse if Congress approves a U.S. House of Representatives proposal to cut $39 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, over the next 10 years.
Lisa made a broccoli cheese casserole to feed 17 people at her family’s Thanksgiving celebration today. She’s disabled after being hit by a car 15 years ago and thrown 50 feet in the air. She nearly died in the emergency room and has undergone more than 30 surgeries so she can walk and talk with minimal pain.
She gets $151 a month in assistance for food, $11 less due to the cut.
“Why take from the poorest people and why take food?” Lisa asked. “That’s pretty inhumane. There’s other ways to cut budgets.”
Georgia families of three lost about $29 in benefits this month, enough for nearly 21 meals, said Melissa Johnson, policy analyst for Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.
“Food stamp applications follow unemployment, but with a little bit of a delay,” said Ashley Fielding, of the Georgia Department of Human Services.
The number of Hall County SNAP recipients nearly tripled between September 2007 and September 2012, from 11,791 to 31,999, figures from human services show. County unemployment data from the Georgia Department of Labor have more than doubled from an annual average of 3,332 residents actively looking for work in 2007 to 6,814 actively looking in 2012, hitting a peak in 2009 of 8,224.
Lisa said she’d rather do without than go to a food bank, but some families have nowhere else to go for help.
Charities and food banks are feeling the pinch from unprecedented demand.
The South Hall Community Food Pantry saw 1,098 families visit the nonprofit in a nearly four-month period starting in August, said Carol Williams, volunteer and pantry treasurer.
“We probably have on average about 10 to 12 families a day, and we’re only open for two hours,” she said. “But on (Nov. 16), we had 29 families come, which was way above our average.”
The Oakwood pantry, open Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, saw a surge of people right after the food stamp cuts kicked in, which included many new people getting services.
Georgia Mountain Food Bank supplies food for the South Hall pantry and other partner agencies, such as shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries, in five counties. Along with Hall County, the food bank distributes to the counties of Union, Forsyth, Dawson and Lumpkin.
This year, Georgia Mountain had to buy food from a grocery store to fill an order for the Gainesville Salvation Army office after food drive collections fell short.
“It is not that the food is down, we’re up in food coming in,” said Kay Blackstock, executive director of Georgia Mountain Food Bank. “It’s the amount that is going out that has increased dramatically, so that’s what the problem is.”
Congress has been negotiating further cuts to food stamp funding as part of a wide-ranging farm bill.
The Republican-controlled House wants to cut food funding by an additional $4 billion, 10 times more than the Senate farm bill, as well as tighten eligibility requirements and allow states to enact new work requirements for recipients.
Democrats and President Barack Obama oppose major cuts to the program.