By Natalie Kornicks and Zainab Mudallal, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS – Myra Feagin is an employed Baltimore resident, pregnant mother of one, and a nine-year participant in the Maryland food stamp program. She struggles to put food on the table for three.
“Of all things in the world, I would feel better with food stamps than cash,” said the full-time home healthcare provider. “I can live in a homeless shelter, but I need food."
Feagin, 28, is one of nearly 783,000 people in Maryland receiving supplemental food assistance—a number that went up 9 percent this past year—the third-highest increase of any state, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit research organization.
Despite a national increase in food stamp participants, the House of Representatives voted 217 - 210 in favor of $40 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the next 10 years.
And with the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act’s temporary boost to SNAP benefits scheduled to come to an end this November, cuts in SNAP – the federal food stamp program – could plunge nearly 48 million Americans into deeper levels of food insecurity, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, said now is not the right time to take food off of peoples’ tables, with the USDA study showing little to no change in food insecurity, and U.S. Census data released this week, showing a near-generation high poverty rate of 15 percent.
“The struggles people are going through are real and are documented by the Census and USDA,” he said.
Maryland had the third highest increase in participation from June 2012 to June 2013, following Illinois with 15 percent and Wyoming with 11 percent.
The most significant rise in enrollment in Maryland occurred in Prince George’s County, where an additional 16,000 people received assistance, or an 18 percent increase.
The second highest growth in participation was in Charles County and Anne Arundel County, each at 14 percent.
“The number of people who use food stamps is increasing; people are losing their jobs,” said Arnette Snowden, 86, a volunteer at the Asbury United Methodist Church in Annapolis, which hosts a food bank several days each week.
“There are a whole lot of new faces coming now,” said Snowden, who has been volunteering at the food pantry for 13 years.
Faces like Earline Tungur’s, 56, an Annapolis resident who started using food stamps two years ago after the cleaning company she worked for went out of business. Now she works part-time for an insurance company and comes to the food pantry whenever she needs to help her daughter and grandchildren.
“The food stamps help a lot, because some people lost their job and don’t have part time jobs,” she said.
In addition to the economy, Wilson said outreach has helped increase participation in Maryland.
“It’s a tough time out there,” he said. “And I think we have made an effort for people who are eligible [to] get benefits.”
Although food stamp use in Maryland has risen to 14 percent, it is still lower than the national average of 16 percent, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
Although there has been an upturn in personal income, business investment, goods exports and consumer spending, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, one million more people became part of food supplement programs between June 2012 and June 2013 nationwide.
According to Lisa Klingenmaier, an anti-hunger program associate for Maryland Hunger Solutions, the rise in economy is false, unless you are in the top 1 percent of earners.
“This is why there has not been an economic recovery for everyone else,” she said. “Particularly those in poverty and on food stamps.”
About one in seven people received SNAP and/or were unemployed or underemployed, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released earlier this month.
“It is not a coincidence that these numbers are similar; both SNAP participation and the [unemployment rate] reflect economic hardship and employment inadequacy,” according to a June 2013 Food Research and Action Center report.
But Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, voted Thursday to cut SNAP funding.
“We want to get food stamps into the hands of those people who deserve it. … If we're going to help you with food stamps, and we are, then we need you to either work, look for employment, if you're able-bodied, not disabled and able to work,” Harris told CNN Thursday.
“There are people who are getting it who probably shouldn't be. ... We know there's waste, fraud and abuse,” he said.
The House measure differs from a $4 billion cut to the food stamp program that the U.S. Senate passed in June, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
But Marissa Hayes, 24, a Baltimore food stamp recipient, hopes Congress does not cut the program. She has been unemployed for three weeks and has been going to different pantries, churches and friends’ houses to keep her and her 1-year-old son fed.
“I do almost everything I can to survive,” she said. “It’s unfair that [the House] is trying to cut [SNAP], but at the same time I can understand why they’re trying to. I just don’t think they realize how many people are affected.”
And Feagin is hoping to avoid seeing the disappointed look on her nine-year-old daughter’s face when she opens the door to an empty refrigerator.
“When you ask a person the three things you need to survive, food is one,” she said.