Jim Dombroski loads the Hartford Food System's Mobile Food Market after a 2 hour stop at Community Health Solutions in Hartford. Julia Werth / CTMirror.org
Jim Dombroski loads the Hartford Food System’s Mobile Food Market after a two-hour stop at Community Health Solutions in Hartford. Julia Werth / CTMirror.org

Connecticut’s two nonprofit food banks provided more than 31 million meals last year. For many of the nearly half a million state residents who struggle to put food on the table, this was a lifesaver.

But it was just 13 percent of what was provided by the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), according to a report by Foodshare, one of the two food banks.

In 2016, SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, provided enough money for more than 233 million meals in Connecticut, Foodshare wrote.

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would cut SNAP funding by about 25 percent over the next 10 years by lowering the income limit for eligibility. His plan also would transfer up to 25 percent of SNAP’s cost to the states.

The administration says the cuts would return SNAP to about the size it was before the recession now that the economy has improved.

“There is no way the food banks can make up for cuts to SNAP,” said Sarah Santora, community involvement manager for Foodshare. If cuts are made, “it’s going to be a deluge, a flood of people going into the pantries and shelters that we serve, and then those facilities will turn around to us and request a huge increase in food, but we don’t have a lot of hope for filling it.”

And the state is not in good shape to pick up the slack either.

“The state of Connecticut is not in a good position to pick up significant new costs given our lack of a budget agreement and the underlying gap between revenue and expenditures,” said Ben Barnes, secretary of the Office of Policy Management. “The SNAP program is obviously a valuable one, and if the federal government begins to retreat from its role in combatting hunger, we will be worse off as a nation.”

SNAP has been cut before

This isn’t the first time in recent years that cuts have been proposed for the nation’s largest food assistance program. Substantial cuts actually were made to SNAP in 2013 and 2016, including limits on how long unemployed individuals could receive benefits, said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut.

In Congress, while a majority of Democrats oppose cuts to SNAP funding, Republicans are currently split on the issue. Some want to make deeper cuts than those Trump has proposed, while others, mostly from agricultural states, want to preserve the program as is.

“I do know that there is some pushback, which is great, in Congress. Each and every one of our delegation is opposed,” Nolan said. “Rosa DeLauro sits on the committee, and is a very strong voice for the hungry in Connecticut and across the nation.”

About 392,000 Connecticut state residents were receiving SNAP benefits in March, according to the state Department of Social Services.

“Without SNAP, it would kind of hurt me because I would start to stress about rent a little more,” said Devante Jenkins, a Hartford resident and SNAP recipient who is working toward his certification in athletic training at Capitol Community College.

A Mobil Food Mart in Hartford that accepts SNAP benefits Julia Werth / CTMirror.org

“I grew up in Hartford, and I’m trying to make it now. I live on my own. I got a little studio apartment, and I pretty much live check to check, I’m not going to lie,” said Jenkins, who works weekdays on the Hartford Food System’s (HFS) Mobile Food Market bus and as a bouncer at night at a club in Springfield. “It helps ’cause I’m into body building, so it helps me be able to get my fruits and vegetables, my meat.”

Jenkins receives $194 a month through SNAP, the maximum benefit for a single person without dependents. He said he is usually able to stretch it for the full month, giving him $50 per week for food in addition to what he can contribute after rent and school expenses. For most of Jenkins’ fellow recipients, that is not the case.

“By the second week of the month, you can see the SNAP has disappeared,” said Jim Dombroski, who owns a farm in Simsbury and drives the Mobile Food Market bus a couple of days a week. “It’s not even enough now. If they cut it, it’s only going to last people a week.”’

In the past, whenever SNAP benefits have been cut or increased, there has been a direct correlation with food insecurity in the state, Nolan said.

“If there is an increase, we see food insecurity go down, and if there is a cut we see food insecurity go up,” Nolan said. “It is an economic driver as well. It’s not only feeding people, but feeding the state of Connecticut.”

The Mobile Food Market, as well as the North End Farmer’s Market, are parts of an effort by Hartford Food System and other nonprofits throughout the state to encourage SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase healthier foods. For many residents of Hartford and other cities, the only accessible locations that accept SNAP benefits are convenience stores or small grocers.

“I know that we live in a virtual healthy-food desert. I know that ’cause I’m a North End resident. I am one of the ones…fortunate enough to have a car and accessibility,” said Shana Smith, director of the mobile food and farmer’s markets. “The mobile market and the farmers market provide fresh food to people who may not be able to get it elsewhere.”

With 39 percent of Hartford’s population receiving SNAP benefits, the capital city has the highest percentage of recipients among Connecticut municipalities, followed by Waterbury (34 percent) and New Haven (31 percent).

But food insecurity and dependence on federal food assistance programs like SNAP are not unique to cities. It is a statewide problem, though the stigma of needing help to feed your family makes people reluctant to talk about it, said Martha Page, executive director of the Hartford Food System.

Rural areas affected too

“I think it’s all over, we have rural poverty too,” Page said. “There’s a stigma in not being able to feed yourself or feed your family. People don’t want to admit it. No parent anywhere wants to admit that they can’t feed their kids.”

The stigma may be even worse for those who live in more affluent communities, and there may be less help getting access to benefits.

“It’s more accessible for folks in the city because they are more likely to have folks who will walk you through the process,” Page said.

Aside from SNAP, a $35 million cut has been proposed in Equipment Assistance Grants for school meal equipment, which helps schools buy equipment that allows them to serve healthier food.

Cuts to the national school lunch and breakfast programs, the Summer Meals program, and the Child and Adult Care program, which provide food aid to children in daycare and adults needing care, also have been discussed in Washington, said Beverly Pheto, chief of staff for Rep. Rosa DeLaura, but no cuts were proposed in the President’s current budget proposal. One in six Connecticut children qualify as food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and cuts to any of the children’s programs would affect thousands.

“You don’t feed a kid breakfast, and then you want them to learn math? Really? As a practical investment in strong communities, civic engagement, just feed them,” Page said. “I don’t understand people who just don’t think there is a fundamental right for people to eat.”

Nonprofits have traditionally filled the gap between what government services can provide and what the need really is in communities. But with such a large cut, that may not be possible going forward, Santora said.

The Hartford Food System, Foodshare, Connecticut Food Bank and most nonprofits that work with the food insecure do not receive much government funding, and the grants that they do get are almost all federal. Therefore, the present scale of their operation is not threatened, like some other social services in Connecticut are, by the state’s failure to pass a budget by July 1.

But if social services are cut, a ripple effect could end up increasing hunger across the state.

“Food is very often a very sacrifice-able thing because you are going to try to make sure you don’t lose your housing, you’re going to try to make sure of your car, so food – of the many things that you need – is cut,” Page said. “Someone who might have made the decision to make healthier selections doesn’t have the option to make healthier selections, and the long-term effect of bad food, does that squeeze out into the medical system?”

Without any definite decision on cuts to any of the federal food assistance programs, all nonprofits can do is attempt to increase donations and expand the number of hungry people they can serve. If a cut is made for 2018, it will be decided by Sept. 30, the end of the current budget year.

“Across the country, we are all in the same position. You can’t double or quadruple the food banks overnight,” Santora said. “There will be a lot of activity to work with legislators while they’re on their home turf this summer so they can see the need for themselves.”

UConn Journalism Students Explore Food Insecurity in Hartford
Steve Tucker / UConn journalism

Last semester 13 University of Connecticut journalism students investigated the difficulty Hartford’s low-income communities have putting good, nutritious food on the table. The students’ stories, photographs and videos explored problems of access and affordability, the role of government food assistance programs, increases in diabetes and obesity that plague the needy, and the efforts of groups that work to bring fresh, high-quality food to Hartford’s neighborhoods. UConn professors Maureen Croteau, Gail MacDonald and Steve Smith supervised and edited the project, which is available at foodforhartford.org.

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