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Reduced benefits stretch food banks thin

— Tens of thousands of households in North-Central Washington are getting less in food stamps, while other local resources are already stretched thin,

A temporary increase for food stamps, renamed the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, expired on Oct. 31. It was originally approved in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In 2014, the federal government estimates the reduction will be $5 billion.

“We’re seeing record numbers of people at the food bank,” said Lael Duncan, executive director of the Okanogan County Community Action Council. The council houses the Okanogan Food Bank, 424 S. Second Ave.

“Typically our highest concentration of folks come by come around the holidays and in recent years since the economic depression we have seen those numbers increase – I would say that our numbers have doubled,” she said. “We’ve actually been running out of food.”

From July through September alone, the Okanogan Food Bank has served 2,200 new households, Duncan said, bringing the total to about 11,000.

In speaking with other food banks around the county, she said they’re all estimating an increased need of at least 50 percent.

In a report issued in July, 48,293 households in the 4th U.S. Congressional District, which includes parts of Okanogan and Douglas counties, received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits in 2009-2011. In the 5th Congressional District, which includes Ferry County, 46,353 households received benefits.

The cuts impact more than 1 million residents statewide to the tune of $114 million. According to the state agency, a family of three gets $29 less each month if they received the maximum amount, making the new total $497. A four-member family receives $36 less, a two-member household receives $20 less, and an individual gets $11 less if they qualify for the maximum amount.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cuts also impact those receiving Food Assistance Program benefits. Legal immigrants who receive Food Assistance Program benefits through the state will see a reduction, since the benefits are set at 75 percent of what Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides.

In Okanogan, Duncan said the line extending outside the food bank’s doors will stay the same length for an hour and a half after opening, and sometimes people at the end of the line are turned away because there’s nothing left.

“I know of people who have totally lost any benefits,” she said, and food banks can’t take the place of Food Assistance Program.

“There’s kind of a misconception that the food bank provides the food that you need. It’s a supplement,” she said. “It’s maybe a day’s worth of food, or a day and a half.”

In Twisp, The Cove food bank, 128 Glover St., has seen more people but hasn’t run into a problem of running out of food.

“We had close to 90 households come through last week, which is an increase. I can’t say if it was from the food stamps or not,” Executive Director Glenn Schmekel said. “We never had a dip this summer. We’ve stayed at a constant level and now it’s increasing.

“We’re expecting a big increase between now and New Year’s.”

He said more people may be showing up because, as tourism and hunting seasons wind down, businesses are laying off their seasonal employees.

The Cove receives considerable support from the community, donations of food as well as money, Schmekel said. Right now, it is preparing for Thanksgiving.

Duncan said the Okanogan area could use more donations. Cash provides the biggest benefit, she said, because the food bank receives discounts for buying in bulk.

If people are strapped for cash, Duncan said the food bank needs more protein-based items. She cautioned residents to check expiration dates before donating.

She also encouraged people to volunteer for fundraising efforts through Community Action, or call their representatives in Congress to request that SNAP benefits be reinstated.

“We all pay the cost. It’s a ‘Pay me now or pay me later’ investment,” she said. “There is a return on that investment economically beyond the social return.”

Community Action, in addition to seeking more grant funding, also runs a program called Food For All, which helps residents through projects such as growing square-foot gardens around the county and obtaining thousands of pounds of fresh produce through gleaning – collecting what’s left after harvest.

Food For All announced earlier this month that local businesses have donated and helped store 73,740 pounds of apples this fall for Okanogan County residents.

Community Action also provides cooking classes and teaches people how to can the produce they’ve grown so it lasts through the winter.

Meanwhile, The Cove has been working with the Methow Valley School District, sending home food-stuffed backpacks with about 80 children every Friday, Schmeckel said. The Cove also helps people through an aid and assistance fund to avoid utility shut-offs and evictions, among other emergency needs.

“The only thing we can do is look back to the community to try and help their neighbors,” Duncan said.

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