Local food pantries, already struggling to keep up with increasing need, are bracing for more requests for help as monthly food stamp allocations drop Friday.
The reduction comes about as the 2009 federal economic stimulus package that increased food stamp allocations ends, dropping SNAP allocations by a total of $5 billion next year.
The package, called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, had increased monthly allotments for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, or SNAP, by an average of 13.6 percent about $80 a month for a family of four.
When the package ends at midnight, the monthly allotments will drop by about $36 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.
Meanwhile, the cost of groceries continues to rise. For example, the cost of chicken, long considered to be a cheap source of protein, increased by 5.5 percent from 2012 to 2013, and is expected to rise by another 4.5 percent over the remainder of this year, and an additional 4 percent next year, according to the USDA.
Unemployment continues to be a problem. Carbon County's rate in August, the latest data available, was 8.7 percent, higher than the state average of 7.7 percent. Monroe County's was 9.7 percent, and Schuylkill's, 8.9 percent.
In Carbon County, about 3,600 people rely on SNAP to help put food on the table, according to the state Department of Public Welfare. Their average allotment is $256.24 a month, said DPW spokeswoman Carey Miller.
For Shepherd House, Carbon County's food pantry provider, which operates nine food pantries, in Beaver Meadows, Tresckow, Weatherly, Nesquehoning, Lansford, Summit Hill, Lehighton, Palmerton and Jim Thorpe, the drop in jobs, rise in grocery prices and fall in food stamp allocations adds up to trouble.
"This is going to be a challenge. We won't really know the full impact until people start coming to us," said Shepherd House director Stanley Haupt. "There's nothing we can really do to prepare for it."
He said Shepherd House has seen requests for food increase by about 30 percent over the past year alone. The pantries provide a three-day supply of food per month to each household. So far this year, it has provided food to 7,339 households.
The 29-year-old nonprofit operates on a $115,576.27 annual budget, fueled by donations of food and money from people, businesses, churches and civic organizations.
Much of the food comes through Second Harvest Food Bank, based in Allentown, which supplies pantries in six counties, including Carbon and Monroe. Last year, the organization distributed 6.96 million pounds of food, a 9 percent increase over 2011.
"It's only going up," said Second Harvest's Food Stamp Outreach Coordinator, Kathryn Hoffman. "This (cut) is an extra burden on families that are trying to make it."
Food pantries typically limit families to one visit per month. But many families run out of food before the month is over. The impending cuts in food stamp allocations will likely increase the numbers of those families, Hoffman said.
Second Harvest "encourages food pantries to serve families in crisis because of this cut, to allow them to go more than one time a month," she said.
The numbers of those who rely on SNAP has increased since 2008, when an economic recession swept the country. Five years later, the job market continues to struggle.
The program cost about $80 billion last year, with 47 million participants about 14 percent of the United States' population.
About 38 percent of the 1.8 million Pennsylvanians receiving SNAP benefits are employed, but do not earn enough to feed their families, according to DPW.
Nationally, about 41 percent of SNAP participants are working, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
About 45 percent of SNAP participants are children, and another 19 percent are elderly or disabled, CBPP says.
In Carbon County, 6 percent of SNAP participants are disabled, 39 percent are under age 18, and 10 percent are over age 60, said DPW spokeswoman Carey Miller. Some participants may fall into more than one category; for example, a participant may be both over 60 and disabled.
Here are the income guidelines to be eligible for food pantry supplies:
Single person: annual income of $21,257
Family of two: annual income of $28,694
Family of three: annual income of $36,131
Family of four: annual income of $43,568
Family of five: annual income of $51,005
Family of six: annual income of $58,442
Family of seven: annual income of $65,879
Family of eight: annual income of $73,316
For each additional household member: add $7,437