Farm bill will influence food shelf future

Ann Johnson
Ann Johnson visits the Channel One food shelf once a month. She says she is getting less food than in the past because of increased demand.
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

Once a month Ann Johnson, her husband and her 18-month-old daughter visit Channel One Food Shelf in Rochester.

Johnson picks through a display of canned fruit. She's already put mixed fruit in the shopping cart. Her husband holds up peaches.

"She likes peaches better. Put this one back," she tells him.

Cynthia Shaffer
Channel One Food Bank executive director Cynthia Shaffer
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

Johnson lost her job in July. She hasn't been able to find one that fits with her husband's schedule. They need opposite shifts because they can't afford day care.

In addition to the monthly trips to the food shelf, Johnson gets food stamps through WIC. Her daughter doesn't get baby food. Johnson says they can't afford it.

"We have to basically live off of pasta, spaghetti and ramen noodles and stuff like that," she says. She'd like to eat more fruits and vegetables, she says.

At one time, the amount of food Johnson got from the food shelf would tide the family through the month.

"Children are not able to learn if they haven't had a full meal. You can't go out and look for work when you're hungry and worrying about trying to feed your family."

Food shelf staff try to provide five days worth of food per person per household. Now, Johnson says she gets half that.

Channel One Food Bank executive director Cynthia Shaffer says more people are coming to the food shelf now. In 2005 2,300 families visited the food shelf each month. In 2006 that number shot up 30-percent. That increase is reflected nationally.

While a large portion of the food banks distribute comes from the government, more demand doesn't mean more food. Shaffer says there's a clear negative impact.

"Nutrition is going to go down. And there is long-term negative effects that happen due to poor nutrition. Children are not able to learn if they haven't had a full meal. You can't go out and look for work when you're hungry and worrying about trying to feed your family," Shaffer says.

Scheer says she believes people using the food shelves in Rochester are more desperate. And there's another issue.

The 2002 Farm Bill didn't account for inflation in its Emergency Food Assistance Program. The government provided a significant portion of its food assistance through the surplus commodities program. When staples like corn, apples and cheese are cheap the government buys the surplus and distributes it to food banks. But it doesn't do so when prices for commodities are high. Right now, prices are high.

America's Second Harvest is the nation's largest hunger-relief network. The organization's vice-president of government relations Maura Daly says states have seen a 70 percent drop on average in food through the surplus commodities program.

"In Minnesota you're down from $2,000,000 in bonus-purchases in 2003 to $622,000 (last year.)"

In the new Farm Bill before Congress the commodities program is excised and funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program increases from $140 million to $250 million each year. While that helps people at the food shelves food stamps are a separate piece of the bill.

Apples at Channel One food shelf
MPR photo/Sea Stachura

Congress has made complex changes in the food stamp eligibility formula. Practically speaking it's not likely to mean a big increase for food stamps recipients.

In Ramsey County, Director of Financial Assistance Mary Nelson says her county has 16,000 food stamp cases. That number is already growing.

"Since the first of the year our caseload has probably grown by 1,000 to 1,200 cases," she says.

Nelson says even if the proposed changes take effect, they won't come close to helping everyone eligible for food stamps.

Take senior citizens. A lot of seniors, she says, live on very little income and would qualify for food stamps. But they wouldn't get much assistance.

"They would only qualify for the minimum benefit, which is $10 a month for a single person. Well, $10 a month, that's a lot of hassle in a big bureaucracy to get $10 a month," she says.

The version of the Farm Bill in the Senate would increase that minimum benefit to $12 a month. Both House and Senate versions of the bill would also make it somewhat easier for people to get Food Stamp benefits. The bill slightly loosens income requirements.

But Nelson points out the bill hasn't passed yet. She says now is the time of year when people are choosing between food and heat.

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