For the last two days of October, Asucena Barrajas had to give milk to her baby because she had run out of food stamps to buy more formula.
The $350 in food stamps seldom lasts the whole month for Barrajas, her husband and three children. She has to turn to family or friends for help, she said, or sometimes " a store owner lets me borrow formula and I will pay it back to him."
Barrajas is not alone. Food stamps often don't stretch to the end of the month for nearly 436,000 people -- more than one in five -- in the central San Joaquin Valley who rely on the government food assistance program.
Now, they have less each month to buy food after a cut in food stamps that started Friday. That cut will put more pressure on food banks, and also cut revenues for grocery stores.
Local food banks are preparing for a ripple effect.
"We're going to be starting to see people in the food pantries who have been very thrifty in making their food stamps stretch," said Sandy Beals, executive director for FoodLink, which serves Tulare County residents.
The amount families get in food stamps differs by family size, income and household expenses, but for a family of four receiving $668 a month, the cut in food stamps means $36 less a month, or $432 over a year.
The cut -- an average of 6% -- may not seem like a whole lot, Beals said, but for families whose food budgets are tight already, "it's kind of the difference between buying one bag of beans instead of two."
And the food bank has nothing extra to provide families when food stamps run out more quickly. "I wish I could promise them we can give them what they need," she said. But "the economy has been down in this area so long now that our donations are way down."
The Community Food Bank in Fresno also expects an increase in families needing help, said executive director Andy Souza. "That's just really the nature of whenever a cut like that happens," he said.
Community, which serves people in Fresno, Madera and Kings counties, will survey clients to gauge the effect, he said.
Donations at the food bank are slightly down from last year, he said, but are beginning to pick up.
Many families on food stamps have learned how to budget food dollars -- and that skill will be put to the test now. The reduced benefit equates to an average meal cost of $1.40, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan policy institute in Washington, D.C.
Michelle McNeal, 29, of Fresno, buys 20-pound bags of rice that she parcels out over numerous meals for herself and her 6-year-old son. She makes soups and stews and freezes them. She learned the money-saving food tips from her mother, she said.
Even with her frugality, McNeal said, the $367 in monthly food stamps is gone by about the 20th of each month and she has to turn to family for help. She hadn't heard about a cut to her benefits -- a 6% reduction will mean about $20 less a month -- but it will mean more of a struggle to feed her son and herself, she said.
A single mother, McNeal is studying to earn her GED high-school equivalent diploma and hopes to get a job and not need food stamps. "I'm appreciative of the assistance," she said.
Ruben Pedraza, 42, of Fresno, has been receiving $367 a month for himself and his infant daughter. He didn't know how much less in food stamps he will get, but any reduction will hurt. A roofer, Pedraza has intermittent jobs in the winter. This week, he was out of work.
Food stamps are essential, he said: "Without the help of the food stamps we'd be hungry."
Food stamps, however, don't go far enough. On Friday, he was at the Women, Infants and Children office in downtown Fresno to get formula for 11-month-old Gina.
WIC, which provides vouchers for the purchase of specific foods meant to meet the nutritional needs of women and children, expects caseloads to swell in coming months as more families deal with less food stamps.
The reduction will create a lot of additional stress on lower-income families who already struggle to meet the basic needs for food and shelter, said Jack Lazzarini, interim director of WIC at the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission.
And families could see further cuts.
This month's reduction stops a temporary benefit increase that was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act approved by Congress on Oct. 1, 2009, to address the economic affects of the recession. But the program swelled with participants in the past three years and now costs about $80 million nationwide. Congress is debating whether to cut even more.
"There are some things considered sacred in Congress and food stamps is not one of them," said David Schecter, a professor of political science at California State University, Fresno, and a member of the Community Food Bank board.
Fresno County issued nearly $391 million in food stamp benefits in the 2012-13 fiscal year, said Sanja K. Bugay, deputy director of the Department of Social Services. The cuts that began Friday will mean $1.9 million less in food stamps to families in Fresno County each month, she said.
The average benefit is $357 a month, or about $12 a day for a family of two or three, Bugay said. The benefit has been cut to about $11 a day, she said.
Whereas the cut appears small on the individual level, millions less will be spent in grocery stores.
According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture food assistance formula, every $5 dollars in new food stamps generates about $9 in economic activity.
Based on that formula, Bugay said, the benefits reduction in Fresno County will reduce economic activity by $3.5 million monthly or $42.2 million annually.
Donna Ortiz, deputy director of TulareWORKS, the county's welfare program, said the foods stamps reduction will result in an economic loss there of about $1.6 million monthly.
The cuts in food stamps have a more personal price to Barrajas, who was at WIC on Friday for a voucher so she could feed her 8-month-old daughter. "For the money they're cutting out, I could buy me another formula."
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