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Struggling Mainers Brace for Cuts in Food Stamps
08/15/2013   Reported By: Mal Leary

During the worst of the recession, Congress increased benefits under the supplemental nutrition assistance program, also known as SNAP - what used to be called food stamps. But that increase ends Nov. 1, and as Mal Leary reports, the effects will go beyond a reduction in low income food assistance.

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There are about 250,000 Mainers in over 130,000 households that receive some level of help in buying food every month through the SNAP program. The current average monthly benefit is just over $124, but it all adds up to more than $30 million a month in payments.

Benefits are based on household size, and the cut that takes effect in November is $20 for a family of two. Robyn Merrill of Maine Equal Justice, a low income advocacy group, says that will make it more difficult for those already having a hard time feeding themselves and their families.

"Supplement benefits will average - let me see - less than $1.40 per meal for a person in 2014," she says. "So if you think about that, trying to - you know, trying to pay for a meal with $1.40, it's challenging."

Maine already has significant food security issues, says Mary Ellen Camire, a professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Maine. She says what might seem like a minor cut will have a significant impact on both those receiving benefits and those that supply and sell food in state. She says the challenge will be to stretch that food assistance as far as possible.

"One potato will fill you for a meal, and that we could be giving people a lot more food with that $20, just by shopping carefully. Admittedly not everyone does shop carefully," she says. "But it also is going to have a real economic impact on food sellers in this state, in that they are not going to have the income from the food being sold to these people. So it's a ripple effect, from farmers all the way up to the big grocery store chains."

And an economist says the reduction in benefits will take about $26 million a month out of Maine's economy. USM's Charles Colgan says that will add further stress to an already struggling recovery effort.

"It's one of the things that, during the recession and our high unemployment, has been important in keeping Maine - at least keeping it at a relatively non-disastrous level," Colgan says. "So when you start withdrawing that, you - particularly since the Maine economy has not yet fully recovered - you are looking at effects that are significant."

Robyn Merrill, of Maine Equal Justice, predicts a greater demand on food pantries as families seek to offset the reduced food stamp benefits. And she says there could also be a greater demand for help from local cities and towns.

"General Assistance does help families pay for food when they are not able to make ends meet, and when food supplement benefits don't cut it," she says. "So, potentially, this could impact cities and towns."

Both Merrill and Camire are also worried that there may be further cuts in the food assistance programs. There are several proposals before Congress that would reduce benefits, and some have been approved at the committee level in the House.


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