Florida's food programs are bracing for cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that kick in Nov. 1 --- while watching warily as U.S. House and Senate conferees prepare to negotiate a federal farm bill, which could have much more far-reaching consequences for hungry Floridians.
Food banks and other programs that help Florida's 3.6 million food-insecure residents have known for years about the cuts coming next week. The cuts were built into the 2008 federal-stimulus package that temporarily added money to SNAP, also known as food stamps, during the depths of the economic recession.
But that won't make the cuts any easier, say advocates for the food banks and other supplemental programs. The cuts amount to $36 monthly for a family of four getting the maximum benefit of roughly $668.
"That's going to be a significant hit for families," said Rebecca Brislain, executive director of the Florida Association of Food Banks. "We already know SNAP doesn't last the whole month."
"I don't think a lot of people realize just how low the SNAP benefit is," said Debra Susie, executive director of the anti-poverty group Florida Impact. "In the state of Florida, the SNAP benefit per person per day is about $4.60." And that's before the monthly reductions that kick in Nov. 1.
The good news, said Brislain, is short-term: The state's food banks have built their donor base and increased distribution since the recession began. Four years ago, they were collecting and distributing 72 million pounds of food a year; now, that's up to 173 million pounds a year.
But Brislain said the long-term problem is that Florida isn't recovering from the recession fast enough, and the state's many low-paying jobs don't provide enough income to make ends meet.
"All it takes is what some people consider a small family crisis --- a flat tire, someone in the family getting sick --- anything can stretch the circumstances to the point they need extra help," she said. "There's no discretion on your rent. Food is the one area, unfortunately, that people can cut back on."
Florida's food hardship rate is more than 21 percent, meaning that one in five Florida households reported that in the past year they struggled to buy enough food for the family.
The state is one of the hardest-hit for food security, with six urban areas in the nation's top 25 for food hardship in 2011-2012. Those areas are Orlando-Kissimmee, Lakeland-Winter Haven, Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Jacksonville and Cape Coral-Fort Myers. From June 2011 to June 2012, Florida saw the nation's second-highest increase in SNAP use --- a rise of 9.7 percent.
That fragility is why advocates for the food programs are watching nervously as the U.S. House and Senate prepare to negotiate further cuts to SNAP.
Republicans contend the food stamp budget should be cut by as much as $39 billion, the amount the GOP-led House included in its version of the federal farm bill in September. The Democratic-led Senate passed cuts of about $4 billion. Now the two chambers will go into conference on the bill Wednesday, while President Obama has vowed to veto cuts to SNAP that are too drastic.
The House also passed the so-called Southerland amendment, by U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., which includes work requirements. The House bill denies SNAP benefits to adults aged 18 to 50 who are not disabled, raising children, enrolled in training or working at least 20 hours per week.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Policies, the House bill would mean more than 400,000 Floridians could lose food assistance.
"What we have done in this country is wrong," Southerland said on the House floor last month. "We have failed in introducing the blessing of work to able-bodied people who have the ability, who are mentally, physically, psychologically able to work, and we have robbed them of knowing a better life that they helped create for themselves and their families.”
The state has picked up some of the slack. The 2013 Legislature allocated $700,000 for supplemental nutrition programs --- a 75 percent increase, said state Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula and chairman of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.
"I don't pretend to understand a lot of the politics played in Washington," Albritton said. "But in the Florida Legislature, we're going to be working to help people in need, including programs like this."