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Winter weather: More than an inconvenience for low-income families

December 18, 2013
Sharon Thornberry, OFB's Community Food Systems Manager
Child receiving emergency food This fall, low income families were dealt a double blow. First, Thanksgiving fell during the last week of the month, the week when their SNAP benefits were running out due to cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Then it was December, ushering in all of the dreads that low income parents feel with Christmas approaching: trying to figure out how you will feed the kids during Christmas break; signing up for a Christmas food box & gifts for the kids; not knowing if an appropriate gift will be donated for your child; knowing there will barely be enough food for the holiday to seem like a celebration; finding where the free trees will be given out. Or maybe, just maybe, you can squeeze enough out of your paycheck for one special gift for each kid. Then the winter storms hit early and all plans go out the window…

That is exactly what happened last week in over half of the country. For many of us, we were inconvenienced and trapped in the house with the kids, but it was not an economic disaster. Low income families had a very different experience. Where I live here in Oregon, many school districts were closed for five days. During that time, low income kids received no free breakfasts or lunches. Six of my grandchildren (7-16) were in and out of my house while their parents worked or dealt with weather related problems. Playing in the cold, snowy weather gave my grandchildren an appetite, so I cooked a lot. Working at home gave me the flexibility to provide back-up child care and provide hearty meals.

Many families do not have a Grandma nearby to fall back on. Parents have to find child care - not always from reliable sources. Some risk losing their jobs because the daycare for their younger children is closed and they are forced to stay home with their kids. Low wage employers often do not understand the impacts these situations have on their employees.
Extra groceries and child care are just the beginning of the challenges this weather causes. There may be lost income for work shifts that were cancelled. Next month, there will be additional utility bills for heat and for the water that had to be left running to avoid frozen pipes. Additional play clothes have to be washed and dried after all the fun in the snow. Even little things, like the extra toilet paper used with everyone at home, are an unexpected expense. And what if the pipes freeze? Many landlords can be difficult to deal with.

When raising my own children 35 years ago, I experienced economic hardship and I understand what it means. You hold your breath through Christmas and pray that no other disaster hits. You hope that the food pantry will not be closed the week after Christmas, so you can get an extra food box to help feed the kids through the holiday break. You hope that Energy Assistance will come through in time to help with the utilities. You plan which community meals you can attend to make the groceries go farther.

At the end of each long stressful day, low income folks  ̶  if they can find the time and the energy  ̶  turn on the news and find little to cheer their spirits. The Farm Bill, with a plan to increase The Emergency Food Assistance Program, is stalled until after Christmas. There is a proposal on the table to cut SNAP funding by $8.6 billion over the next ten years - slashing SNAP benefits for 850,000 households by up to $90 per month.  And a Senate/House compromise on the FY 2014 Budget will cut the Federal Unemployment Benefits before 2013 ends.

Happy Holidays!
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