Food pantries struggle to meet rising demand in wake of federal food aid cuts

Recent cuts to food assistance programs have left more hungry families turning to local food banks for help

By Katie McDonough

Published November 26, 2013 2:12PM (EST)

 (Reuters/Tami Chappell)
(Reuters/Tami Chappell)

Recent cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which serves as a lifeline to millions of households struggling under a weak economy and high unemployment and underemployment, have been in effect for less than 30 days, but families are already feeling the impact as they struggle to put dinner on the table with reduced food budgets.

As a result, a growing number of families across the country are now turning to local food banks to keep staples like cereal and rice in their pantries.

As the New York Times notes, with Thanksgiving just days away, a line snaked around a Brooklyn block while people waited to enter an area food pantry, hoping to fill their grocery bags with potatoes, onions, milk and -- if they were lucky -- a chicken or ham for the week. The pantry had long ago run out of turkey, according to Melony Samuels, who runs the food bank.

Samuels' pantry, like so many others, has been "wiped out" by a recent spike in demand, which she attributes to the cuts to food assistance programs. They are struggling to keep their shelves stocked for families who depend on them, and worried what will happen after the holidays, when food donations to the pantry drop but the need of local families does not.

More from the Times:

On Thursday, [Samuels] was relieved that the shelves were not barren. Overnight, 19 skids of food had arrived from the Food Bank and other sources she had appealed to, she said. Her call for help was a signal that raised concern throughout the network of organizations that help feed the city’s poorer residents.

Carol Schneider, a spokeswoman for the Food Bank, said that she could not recall Dr. Samuels ever needing to make such a plea. But she said it was not surprising given the stress the federal cutback had put on the budgets of the working poor.

Winsome Stoner knew what Ms. Schneider was talking about. A married mother of five in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Ms. Stoner, 39, said the cut to the family’s food stamps this month amounted to about $50, or about 8 percent.

That brought her to the pantry for a Thanksgiving ham one day — “I got a nice big one,” she said with a broad smile — and back again last week for ingredients for the fixings.

But beyond the holiday, when pantries and soup kitchens are flooded with donations and volunteers, she did not know how she would make do with less. She said she had relied on the pantry for produce because it was too expensive at the Associated supermarket where she spends her food stamps.

“I’m sort of diabetic, so I’ve got to use vegetables,” Ms. Stoner said. But, she added with a shrug, “you’ve got to eat what you can afford.”

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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