Proposed federal cuts by House Republicans to the nation's food stamp program - $40 billion over the next decade - could force more lower income residents in Curry County to go hungry or rely on food banks already struggling to keep up with demand.
This most recent proposal is more than the $4.5 billion in cuts in a Senate version of the farm bill and the failed version of the farm bill in the House that included $20 billion in cuts to food stamps. The House of Representatives recently passed a version of the farm bill that included no funding for the Supplemental Nutritional Allowance Program or SNAP, as the food stamp program has been known since 2010.
The House will consider the proposed cuts to food stamps after Congress returns from its month long August break in September.
Continued high unemployment in the county and a poverty rate that, at 17.9 percent is above both the state (17.3 percent) and national average (15.9 percent), means that Curry County could suffer more than most.
More than 3,800 Curry County residents receive food stamps every month, 16 percent of the county. The average amount awarded to Curry County food stamp recipients is $196.74 per household and $121.41 per individual.
Partnership for Hunger Free Oregon, a non-profit organization advocating for ending hunger in Oregon, estimates that in 2009, SNAP benefits brought in $4.9 million in federal money to the local economy. U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that for every dollar spent in SNAP benefits, $1.79 in economic activity is generated locally.
While the number of Curry County residents receiving food stamps is likely to go down this year, according to Betty J. Albertson, district manager for the Oregon Department of Human Services, the number of residents receiving food stamps is still greater than it was before the recession began in 2008.
Albertson said the need for SNAP benefits tends to go down when employment rates rise, which has been the case both for the state and Curry County.
Oregon is fourth in the nation in terms of percentage of its residents receiving SNAP benefits, behind Washington D.C., Mississippi and New Mexico. More than 810,000 Oregonians received food stamps in June 2013, about 21 percent of the state's population.
In June 2013, 442,259 households in Oregon received SNAP benefits. By comparison, only 115,452 households in June 2000 received food stamps.
Food insecurity - when a household has reduced food intake or has disrupted eating patterns because of inability to purchase food or lack of access to food - is also at 13.6 percent of the Oregon population according to a 2011 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While this is below the national average of 14.7 percent, it shows that a significant number of Oregonians aren't sure when or where their next meal is coming from.
Oregon also has the highest childhood hunger rate in the nation, with 30 percent of Oregon children having food insecurity. Also about 30 percent of emergency food box recipients in Oregon are children.
Potential impact of cuts
Jeff Kleen, public policy advocate for the Oregon Food Bank, estimates that if the proposed $20 billion in cuts to SNAP happened, one in eight Oregonians would see their benefits either reduced or eliminated altogether. This number would be even greater if $40 billion is cut from food stamps.
Kleen estimates that cutting $20 billion would result in the loss of 363 million meals over 10 years. The Oregon Food Bank and its partner agencies distributed 68 million meals last year.
"The idea that private charities can make up for the loss is not realistic," Kleen said. "We are already struggling to meet demand. SNAP cuts would be beyond what we could do."
Food banks in Curry County distributed 17,300 emergency food boxes from April 2012 to April 2013.
Food bank helps
For many in Curry County, food stamps already aren't enough to provide for their food needs.
The Brookings-Harbor Community Helpers Food Bank served 1,898 people during the month of July. It also saw 100 new clients, 23 of whom were children.
"If they cut food stamps, what are we going to do?" asked Mary Boshart, warehouse manager for the food bank. "These people are already on food stamps and they just don't stretch."
Boshart said most of the food bank's customers are families and seniors, and the need is constantly going up at the food bank.
"It's heartbreaking to see seniors in tears come in needing help, some saying they used to donate to us and now they need us," Boshart said.
Donations to the food bank are also down this year, despite a successful month-long food drive just concluded by Grocery Outlet. Local grocery stores contribute items regularly, and food is purchased at nominal cost from the Oregon Food Bank, which delivers food three times a week from Coos Bay. The food bank is also looking for volunteers, especially those who are able-bodied enough to lift heavy objects.
The Oregon Food Bank estimates that 270,000 Oregonians eat meals provided by the Oregon Food Bank every month. This number has gone up considerably since the recession began.
A 2012 study conducted by the food bank showed that 54 percent of users of food banks used them because they ran out of their food stamp benefits before the end of the month. Another 48 percent said high food costs contributed to their use of food banks, and another 40 percent said high cost of fuel and gasoline contributed.
"We already see that demand at our partner agencies is highest at the end of the month," Kleen said. "Surveys show SNAP benefits only last two to three weeks."
Donations and volunteers are always needed at the Brookings-Harbor Community Helpers Food Bank, especially monetary contributions. The Food Bank is open 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday at 539 A Hemlock St. Those wishing to give time or money can call 541-469-5808.
Those wishing to apply for SNAP benefits can apply at two locations in Curry County. In Brookings at 586 Fifth Street, Suite 200, and in Gold Beach at 94145 W. Fifth Place. People can also apply for SNAP benefits online at https://apps.state.or.us/onlineApplication/.