WASHINGTON — Late last year, staff members at the Capital Area Food Bank here began fielding requests for larger deliveries from the dozens of soup kitchens and food pantries that it supplies as more and more people showed up seeking help.
The food bank said it was not unusual to see a surge before Thanksgiving or Christmas. But this time the lines were caused not by the holidays but by a $5 billion cut to the federal food stamp program that took effect in November when a provision in the 2009 stimulus bill expired.
Now the food bank, which provided about 45 million pounds of food last year, says it is preparing for even greater demand as Congress prepares to cut billions of dollars more from the food stamp program, which is included in a farm bill that has yet to pass. About 47 million Americans receive food stamps.
“We are going to increase our efforts to get more donations and try to serve as many people as possible, given our resources,” said Nancy E. Roman, executive director at the food bank. “But make no mistake, if the food stamp program is cut, we’re going to see much longer lines of people seeking help with their food budgets, and we can’t help them all.”
Nancy E. Roman, executive director of the food bank, said food stamp cuts for people would mean that “we can’t help them all.” Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times
It is not just a Washington problem. Food banks across the country are making similar preparations, increasing efforts to prepare for the increased demand even as donations decline. Moreover, they say, they do not have enough staff to meet all the requests.
When the stimulus money expired, a family of three typically lost $29 in aid per month — enough for at least 20 meals, according to Feeding America, a national coalition of food banks. For a family of four, the loss was about $36 in benefits, about 23 meals per month.
It is unclear when the new cuts will kick in, even if Congress manages to pass a new farm bill, an effort that has taken almost two years. The House and the Senate appear to have worked out most of their differences on the bill. That compromise is expected to cut about $9 billion from food stamps over 10 years. House Republicans had wanted to trim financing by $40 billion over the same period, and a bipartisan Senate bill sought a $4 billion cut.
But House members, most of them Republicans, may be unwilling to pass a bill that includes anything less than the $40 billion cut. And senators, especially Democrats, may see the compromise measure as going too far. President Obama has threatened to veto any bill that cuts too deeply.
Still, even with these unknowns, food banks say they are all but resigned to less money for food stamps this year.
Even before the stimulus money ran out in November, food banks said they were having trouble keeping up. Since 2006, the number of Americans receiving food aid from pantries and similar services has gone up almost 50 percent, according to Feeding America.
“We’re already telling our partners — soup kitchens, churches and food pantries — that they need to step up their efforts to raise money and secure more food,” said Margarette Purvis, president and chief executive of the Food Bank for New York City.
Lawmakers say the compromise would not force anyone off the food stamp rolls. The budget savings, said Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan and chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, would come from changes to the way states administer a federal program that helps low-income families with their heating bills.
Under that program, known as Heat and Eat, the District of Columbia and 15 states, including New York and California, allow people who receive heating assistance subsidies to deduct their utility costs from their incomes, allowing them to claim more food stamp benefits.
Critics of the program say that in many cases states exploit a loophole in the law and help families increase the amount of their benefits by giving them a heating subsidy as little as $1, solely to make them eligible for more food stamps. By barring states from doing so, some families will received less in food stamps, and Congress expects that will reduce the program’s costs by $9 billion over the 10 years.
But advocates for the poor say that the Heat and Eat program is vital and that the proposed cut will hurt families that are already struggling to get enough food, even with food stamps. The cut is expected to affect about 850,000 households, about 1.7 million people, across the 15 states, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The affected households would lose an average of $90 per month in benefits, the Budget Office found.
“Losing $90 is a lot of money for a family struggling to get by, and that’s on top of what many of these people lost last November,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center.
In New York City, where the number of people seeking food aid grew 85 percent after the cuts last year, 23 percent of food pantries and soup kitchens reported having to reduce the number of meals they provide, according to a survey by the Food Bank for New York City. About 190,000 people in the city are expected to see a reduction in their benefits if the proposed cuts in the farm bill go through.
In Oregon, about 80,000 people will see monthly benefits reduced if Congress changes the Heat and Eat program, said Jeffrey H. Kleen, a public policy advocate with the Oregon Food Bank.
Mr. Kleen said his agency had a 20 percent increase in requests since November, was already stretched thin and might not be able to replenish supplies and ship more food this year.
“We have distributed a record amount of food over the last year — 86.3 million pounds,” Mr. Kleen said. “But even if we could get more food, we just don’t have the infrastructure to distribute it.”