SNAP benefits decrease to pre-stimulus levels

Cutbacks to the federally funded food stamp program known as SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are leading more people to local food banks.

At the West Bay Community Action Program in Warwick, there are strict rules and guidelines for a person to get assistance.

Jeanne Gattegno who runs the organization, is bracing for the increased demand.

"They must first meet with a social worker or case worker who does an assessment of the situation. Very often when a person is without food, they're also without rent money, or they're looking for a job, or there are other needs," Gattegno said.

It might not sound like much to those who have plenty to eat, but for the average person getting SNAP, try to live on $39.50 per person per week for food. As of Nov. 1, that's down from $41.75 per person per week.

Most of the food at West Bay comes from local businesses that donate and some comes from the Food and Drug Administration to supplement what SNAP benefits can't provide.

Gattegno said the people who come to the Warwick food bank she oversees are not there to abuse the system, nor are they're looking for handouts. They go because they're in dire need.

Gattegno said without the food bank, the elderly and the disabled who make up one-third of all Rhode Island recipients would go hungry. Sandy Porcelli of West Warwick and her husband are disabled.

"We would probably be in a worse situation than we are now," Porcelli said.

SNAP benefits were increased as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 after the economic collapse of the year before. Now they are going back to the previous levels.

The amount of fraud and abuse in the SNAP program is 1.3 percent of its annual budget, according to the Government Accounting Office, down from 3.8 percent in 1993.

But still, $1.04 billion dollars in fraud out of an $80 billion a year budget is nothing to sneeze at.

"I'm a taxpayer. You're a taxpayer. You'd like to think that money that you give to the government that's used for various programs is well used. And so you have to be confident that even if it's a small percentage of fraud, that we're still going after it," said Fred Sneesby, who works at the Rhode Island Department of Human Services.

Sneesby said most of the fraud in Rhode Island takes place at smaller mom-and-pop convenience stores.

Which brings us back to the food banks: With $2.25 less per week to spend on food, that's two pounds of pasta an individual will have to do without, or hope to be able to get generously donated.

Andrew Schiff, who runs the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, is also bracing for a huge increase in demand.

"In aggregate, the cut to Rhode Island for the next year is $20 million. That's more than the whole budget of the food bank," Schiff said.

To find out how to donate, eat healthy on a low budget, or to report what you think might be fraud with the SNAP program, here are a few useful links:

To report fraud in the SNAP program of call 401-415-8300.

10 Tips Nutrition Series

Healthy Low Cost Recipes

Rhode Island Community Food Bank

West Bay Community Action Program