By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
The day came, not too long ago, when Denise Manning considered eating a can of cat food for her dinner.
“I didn’t do it. I didn’t cross that line, but I tell you, I was mighty close,” said the Sharon woman who has to feed herself and her granddaughter on $10 day. The $315 a month she gets in food stamps is all the income she has and she was stunned to find out that starting Friday, she’ll be getting less.
“I didn’t know about it. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. Right now, there’s more month than there is money, she said, and she gets by only with the help of her three grown sons. “If it weren’t for them, I can tell you I’d probably be homeless,” she said.
A stimulus package passed by legislators in 2009 has expired and all food stamp recipients will see a reduction in the amount they receive. Local food pantry providers are bracing for an onslaught of new applicants and some are fearful there won’t be enough help to go around.
Manning said the food pantry at Cedar Avenue Church of God in Sharon has been a “lifesaver” for those times when her cupboards are bare.
“It’s frightening. And I won’t have my granddaughter in that situation. When that happens that we don’t have food, I send her somewhere else to eat, maybe to another relative. I just don’t eat when that happens. Sometimes, I just can’t.”
Manning said being on food stamps is demeaning. “I worked all my life. I managed my own business. Now in the last couple years I’ve had surgery and I need more surgery and I’m not able to work. But I see how people look at you in the store, even the cashiers. They say you’re leaning on the government, taking their tax dollars. It’s so embarrassing. I go at night so there’s less people in there,” she said.
Eating out, even at McDonald’s, is a luxury she simply can’t afford. “It’s been over a year since I’ve had McDonald’s. There’s just no way,” she said.
Much of her day goes into meal planning and making every dollar count. She buys in bulk when she can and portions out small amounts for her and her granddaughter. “I always have to watch the sales and see when I can stock up on chicken leg quarters or pork chops. We eat a lot of cereal. If I get cut, I’ll cut out bread and any sweets,” she said.
She can’t purchase toiletries with her food stamps and depends on her sons for items like toilet paper, soap and laundry detergent.
At one time, she said, she could go to two food pantries that offered different items, but “they’ve gotten so strict now you can’t do that.”
Lori Weston, executive director of the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County, has been working with Feeding Pennsylvania and Feeding America to spread the word to the county’s 32 food pantries about the cuts and the pending influx of new clients.
“Nobody really knows what the effects are going to be. There are only two pantries in the valley that can still accept new clients. What’s this going to do?” she said.
Mimi Prada, the public relations director for the agency, said people often have a misconception about who “the hungry” really are.
“It’s everyone. It’s people you would never expect, not just the ones people see who are homeless with drug and alcohol problems. It touches every group of people,” she said.
“I had a call this week from a gentleman who said last year he contributed $500 to us. Now, he needs our help. He didn’t have enough food. He lost his job and things turned around on him just like that. One year he can afford to give away $500 and now he is hungry,” she said. The agency was able to him, she added.
And Friday’s cuts may just be the beginning, according to Weston. The farm bill currently being considered in the House of Representatives plans to cut $40 billion from the food stamp program over a 10-year period. If that passes, those cuts would further reduce the amount of food stamps recipients get.
A news release from Feeding Pennsylvania said that would result in 850,000 households losing at least $90 a month and 4 million to 6 million recipients losing benefits entirely, as well as 210,000 children losing free school meals.
Pennsylvania food banks distributed 112 million meals in 2013, according to the news release. The cuts, if the farm bill is passed, would mean the loss of 121 million meals.
“There’s no way charity can make up the difference,” Weston said. “Our worst fear is that we’re going to be overwhelmed and not be able to help,” she said.
“The influx of people we expect to see at our pantries has no bounds. We are preparing as much as we can prepare for this. It’s a wait-and-see thing right now,” she added.
Joe Fletcher, director of the Prince of Peace food pantry and soup kitchen, said he’s prepared for any increase that may come his way. Since the Farrell agency’s funding is mostly from donations and not tied to federal or state money, he has room to grow.
The soup kitchen, open twice a week, feeds about 60 people. The numbers dropped when the food stamp stimulus took effect a few years ago, but he hopes more people will take advantage of the food offerings.
“We encourage families to come with their children and making eating together a family time. We try to encourage self-reliance here with some of the programs we offer, but we’re open to all, to anyone who needs us,” he said.
There was a line to get into the kitchen this week and assistant director Annette Morrison was taking names and coat sizes for a winter coat drive the agency sponsors annually.
Monica Austin, of Farrell, said she regularly comes to the soup kitchen when her $424 a month in food stamps falls short of what she needs to feed her family of 6. “The last week of the month is really rough for me. I start out with a meat package with 15 pounds of meat in the beginning and we’re out by then.
“It’s going to affect me hard. I’ll have to cut out bread and cereal. But it’s the holidays that are the worst. I want my kids to have the kind of holidays I had when I was young. I’m going to do what I can,” she said.