To Feed a Family, Food Stamps Can Fall Short


For Tina Backus,  feeding her family on the $243 a month in food stamps is nearly impossible.

“It’s really, really hard at the end of the month,”  said Backus, a single mom of four boys who can no longer work because of poor health. Last month, she said, she had to go to an emergency food pantry at the Huntington Family Center on Gifford Street to get enough food to last the month.

Backus is among the 14,793 Syracuse families who get help from the federal food stamps program, called  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. The need for help with food is growing, say experts on poverty and hunger. And food stamps often don’t put enough food on the table, say those who need them and those who serve the hungry.

The food stamp program is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To qualify for food stamps, a family of four’s gross income must be less than $2,389 a month. The maximum allotment for a family of four is $668 a month.

Consider these statistics on food stamps and hunger:

  • Nationally, more than 46 million families get federal food stamps, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
  • In New York state, the number of people receiving food stamps rose 71 percent from nearly 1.8 million in 2006 to 3 million in 2011,  according to the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.
  • In Onondaga County, 22,384 households — or 12 percent of the population — get food stamps, according to the  2010 Census.  In the city of Syracuse, 14,793 households  — or 24.7 percent — get food stamps.
  • That’s an increase of 3.7 percent of food stamp recipients for the county and 4.7 percent for the city from the findings of the 2005 American Community Survey by the Census Bureau.

In addition, say those who run food-assistance programs, the need for food beyond the government program is also growing. At St. Lucy’s food pantry, for example, the number of people served has risen, said Leslie Dubiel, director of the food pantry.

“Within the last year and a half we’ve taken on 50 to 100 more families,” Dubiel said. “We typically serve 450 families a month, now we’re serving between 500 and 550 families.”

At the Hunger Action Network of New York State, the increase is much the same, said Mark Dunlea, executive director. In the last four years, the group has seen a 50-percent increase statewide  in people coming to food pantries for food, he said.

“With the economy being so bad,” Dunlea said, “the number has increased and unfortunately there are still so many that don’t qualify for food stamps when they probably should.”

Alanna Smith, a nurse at Menorah Park convalescent center in Syracuse, is among those who don’t qualify — barely. She just missed qualifying for food stamps by $1.50, she said.

She is the single working parent of nine children. Her work hours, she said, are not enough to meet her family’s needs. She was low on food and needed an extra boost, she said.  She was referred to the St. Lucy’s food pantry through the Hunger Action Network.

She’s baffled, she said, by food stamp’s requirements that exclude her. “It’s crazy to think that my kids may not be able to eat because I’m a dollar over to qualify,” Smith said.

For her part, Tina Backus of Syracuse also frets about how to feed her family. They live on $1,425 a month after taxes.  But she expresses gratitude for the help.  “I thank God everyday,” said Backus. She added, “I try to do what I can do as a single mom.”

(Sistina Giordano is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)


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