Rosenblum: Small changes can mean big struggles for the hungry

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 7, 2013 - 6:22 PM

A family’s food assistance gets cut by $36 a month. A Sara Lee/Taystee bread outlet closes in New Brighton. A hairstylist’s client comes every six weeks instead of every four.

No big deal, right? For most of us, blessedly right.

But in this season of goodwill, let’s remember that seemingly small changes often translate into big struggles for many of our fellow Minnesotans. And those struggles don’t end when holiday giving does.

On Friday, a handful of faith leaders — who understand this reality all too well — delivered a letter to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Minnesota office. The letter was signed by more than 160 Minnesota religious leaders, urging Klobuchar to oppose what they term “draconian cuts” to the Supplemental Nutrition Food Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

Klobuchar is a member of the Farm Bill conference committee, which must find a compromise between two vastly different proposals to keep SNAP afloat. The Senate bill would cut SNAP by $4.5 billion over 10 years. The House version cuts a petrifying $40 billion over the same time frame.

$1.40 a meal

As you read this, 48 million Americans using SNAP are reeling from recent cuts, which left them scrambling to put food on the table with an average of $1.40 a meal.

Also as you read this, one in five Minnesota families with children say there are times they don’t have enough money to buy food.

It’s a big deal.

Faith leaders and others who work with low-income populations say the cuts, due to expiration of the 2009 federal Recovery Act, already are placing greater demands on emergency food providers.

And the shrinking financial assistance demands even more creativity from recipients, most of whom are low-income working families, people with disabilities and the elderly.

That’s why the recent closing of yet another bread outlet is, in fact, a big deal, too.

Janice Wagar of St. Paul drove to the New Brighton Sara Lee/Taystee outlet Friday as she has for three years. She knew the store was closing soon and hoped to fill up her freezer with high-quality, low-cost bread.

But she found nearly empty shelves “and a gal mopping up the floor.” It’s the fourth Sara Lee/Taystee outlet to close in recent months.

Last year, seven Hostess/Wonder Bread locations closed, including outlet stores in the Twin Cities.

Buying bread at $2 a loaf, instead of $4, “was well worth” the drive from St. Paul, she said. “Bread can make up a big part of your meals when you don’t have much money. It’s breakfast toast or French toast. It’s a sandwich for lunch. It can extend a pound of hamburger to feed more hungry mouths.”

Wagar, who is on Social Security, doesn’t consider herself poor, just thrifty.

“I don’t drink or smoke or gamble,” said Wagar, 73. “I don’t waste a lot of money. I’m sure there are thousands of other women like me who live this way.

“Going forward, it’s really going to create a hardship to find low-cost bread.”

David Kaplan understands that a $2 difference per loaf is a big deal. “When you’re talking about folks who are living at the poverty level and below, every time they lose an option like this for a basic food item at a low cost, it’s a blow,” said Kaplan, a spokesman for Minneapolis-based People Serving People.

‘Working as hard as they can’

“If you’re making them pay more for food, that’s money they can’t put toward rent.”

Byron Laher, president of Community Emergency Assistance Programs (CEAP), also is worried about the SNAP cuts and what they will mean to the 1,500 families his organization serves at food shelves in Blaine and Brooklyn Center.

“When SNAP benefits went down, people [not receiving SNAP] would say to me, ‘You know, $36 less a month for a family of four isn’t that bad.’ I’d say, multiply it by 12.

“These families come here three to four times a year. They’re working as hard as they can.”

He’s “very familiar” with the Taystee operation, he said.

“Those are the kinds of things our folks cobble together. Whenever one of those ends, they’ve got trouble.”

Laher sees trouble arising with other seemingly little things. He’s been humbled by how many people who cut his hair tell him that they’ve used his food shelves. They tell him that their clients are stretching out their haircuts and leaving smaller tips.

“Any little tick like that,” he said, “just makes life so hard.”

The meeting on Friday was an important step in making life a little easier.

“We know that Senator Klobuchar is supportive,” said Rabbi Harold Kravitz, board chairman of Mazon — A Jewish Response to Hunger, and spiritual leader of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka. Kravitz mobilized the campaign of religious leaders in less than a week and said it’s just the start.

“The idea is to give her support for doing the right thing,” Kravitz said, noting that a follow-up meeting with Klobuchar is planned.

“We know she is willing to compromise, but we think this is an area where she needs to hold fast.”

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

612-673-7350

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