Jessica Smith patiently waited for the food pantry to open its doors Thursday, knowing she needs extra supplies to keep food on the table in coming weeks.
After federal cuts to the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – commonly called food stamps, Smith, of Augusta, must shop for groceries with $20 less per month to feed her and her two children.
“You have to make food stretch,” said Smith whose benefits were reduced to $347 monthly. “Some days you’ll have to just eat sandwiches. Some days you’ll have to go without eating at all.”
Reductions to food stamps might hit harder in Augusta than some cities. In Richmond County, 21.8 percent of families were below the poverty line and 19.2 percent received food stamps, according to 2012 U.S. Census American Community Survey 3-year estimates.
Other area counties with high poverty rates and people receiving government assistance could also be affected. In Burke County, 24.6 percent received food stamps, and 21 percent in McDuffie County. Of area counties, Aiken and Columbia counties had the lowest percentages receiving foods stamps at 15.5 and 7.1 percents, respectively.
Smith visited Augusta’s Downtown Cooperative Church Ministries, the city’s largest food pantry, for the first time this week. Many others waiting in line also turned to the food pantry for the first time having exhausted their reduced food stamps amounts or fearing they will run out before the month’s end.
On Nov. 1, millions of people across the nation began receiving fewer monthly food stamps allotments. The 2009 American Recovery and Investment Act boosted amounts to help people affected by the recession but the part of the law raising benefits ran out. Food pantries in Augusta started seeing longer lines and more requests for assistance almost immediately.
“We are beginning to hear from our pantries that they are beginning to see an increase in the number of families and individuals they are seeing each week and month,” said Travis McNeal, the executive director of Golden Harvest Food Bank.
Golden Harvest serves more than 300 food pantries, churches and social service agencies in 30 counties in Georgia and South Carolina. In the 19 Georgia counties it serves, the food stamps cuts amount to $15.9 million, McNeal said. Richmond County food stamp recipients lost $6.8 million.
The Downtown Cooperative Church Ministries, a mission of several local churches, will try to apply for more grant money to make up for the extra food supplies needed, said director Christy Cunningham.
About 90 percent of people who receive help at the downtown pantry are on food stamps, Cunningham said. It serves the first 75 needy people who line up at its door each weekday, and volunteers were forced to turn away between five and eight people each day last week.
“It puts them up against a wall, not knowing how they are going to provide the next meal,” Cunningham said.
Vicki Bukovitz, the executive director of Aiken’s Area Churches Serving Together, or ACTS, said the food stamps reductions especially hurt the elderly and families with children.
Carolyn Young, of Hephzibah, visited the food pantry Thursday for the third week in a row. Her food stamps took a big hit, dropping from $106 to $30.
“It shouldn’t have to be like this,” Young said. “People shouldn’t have to go hungry, especially the elderly and disabled.”