Area food banks are seeing the start of increased demands as changes take place in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that place a limit on who can receive food stamp benefits.
Individuals between the ages of 18-49 classified as being able-bodied and without dependents, need to work at least 80 hours per month in order to continue to receive the SNAP benefits. Those who do not work or who are not participating in an approved training program will be limited to three months of benefits every three years.
Individuals who have been receiving benefits since March 1, when the rule took effect in Pennsylvania, and who have not been working or met any of the other exemptions, will see their benefits end today. The work requirement does not apply to recipients in Fayette County, where the unemployment rate was listed as 8.8 percent in March. Greene County, where the unemployment rate was at 8.1 percent in March, does fall under the employment requirement, as do Washington County with a 6.6 percent unemployment rate and Westmoreland, with a 6.2 percent unemployment rate. Department of Human Services officials contacted Tuesday said the exemptions were based on federal poverty guidelines. They were looking into why Greene County was not exempt, despite higher poverty and unemployment rates than several of the exempted counties.
According to Rachel Kostelac, deputy press secretary for the DHS, 415 individuals in Greene County face the possibility of losing their benefits if they do not meet the work criteria. In Washington County the number is 1,828 and in Westmoreland County 2,760 people could lose their food stamps.
Food pantries in the affected counties are preparing for increased demand as individuals face the loss of their SNAP benefits.
“Our food pantry is available for anyone who is in need,” said Texie Waddell, director of the food pantry program in Westmoreland County.
Waddell said the 44 food pantries in Westmoreland County serve 7,200 households, or approximately 16,500 individual families, each month, with an estimated 31,400 unique individuals served annually.
Not only do the food pantries in Westmoreland County have the capacity for the anticipated increase in demand, they are also offering a way to help individuals continue to qualify for their SNAP benefits.
“Our director of volunteers is working with people who need community service hours to get their benefits,” Waddell said. “Everyone deserves to have food on the table.”
The Westmoreland County food pantries include three in the city of Monessen, located at the Schooner Youth Center, the Salvation Army and the Gate of Heaven Church of God. There is also a food pantry at Fells United Methodist Church in Rostraver Township, Waddell said.
The Greater Washington County Food Bank serves 5,400 households a month, with distribution through 39 food pantries and six senior citizen sites.
“Last year we gave out 2 million pounds of food,” said Heidi Hoffman, the donor relations coordinator for the Washington County Food Bank.
Hoffman said she’s already had one person sign up through Community Action Southwest to serve as a volunteer at the food bank to meet the community service requirement to maintain SNAP benefits.
“Our biggest thing right now, with all of the food drives that have gone on, we need food sorters and packers to come in,” Hoffman said.
Demand is already growing in Washington County for the monthly food boxes.
“I’m receiving calls already from people asking where they can sign up,” said Lorraine Johnson, pantry liaison for the Washington County Food Bank. “We can direct them to a pantry to receive food, which they are entitled to once a month. We tell them which pantry is closest and tell them which day it is open.”
Johnson said 10 to 15 people who are losing their SNAP benefits have contacted her in the past week or so. The food bank can be reached by calling 724-632-2190, though Johnson said she’s also received emails and has even been contacted through Facebook for information.
“If it’s an emergency and they can’t wait for the next distribution, we send them to the one in Washington that’s open every day,” Johnson said.
Johnson said a food box should last a recipient for several weeks.
Jessica Cole, operations manager at the Corner Cupboard Food Bank serving 11 pantries in Greene County, said 700 to 1,000 individuals already receive monthly food boxes. She’s not certain how many of the 415 able-bodied food stamp recipients may turn to the food pantries for assistance in the future.
“It’s going to be hit or miss. I think there are a lot of people who will find a way around it,” Cole said.
Cole said the number of participants generally increases in the summer months, but there are still many others who could use the help, but never come to the pantries.
“You get so many people who are ashamed to come here,” Cole said.
Cole said there is no shame in needing to feed your family, and she is trying to reach out to working families who may also need the assistance.
Even though SNAP recipients in Fayette County don’t face the possibility of losing benefits if they aren’t working, Fayette County Community Action officials said they have received a few calls about the changes. The FCCA food bank serves approximately 3,000 individuals a month.