Hunger Games: Food Stamp Benefits Have Been Cut All Across Ohio. Here in Cleveland, the Hungry and Poor are Hungrier and Poorer than Ever 

The nearest fast food drive-thru starts looking mighty tantalizing when you're down to a few bucks for the day's meals. Ed FitzGerald found that out the easy way.Shortly after Thanksgiving last year, the Cuyahoga County executive and many on his staff took up the Food Stamp Challenge, or the SNAP Challenge. (SNAP stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known more commonly as food stamps.) Participants attempt to live off of SNAP-sized funds for a week. That's about $4.18 each day for chow.

"My staple foods basically ended up being oatmeal, bananas," FitzGerald tells Scene. "It was tougher for me when I was on the road, because I couldn't eat at home. I would eat, you know, something on the dollar menu at McDonald's and I would try to get through the day with only spending $2. Then I would have $2 for dinner."

He says that the manufactured restrictions rewired his thinking for the week quite dramatically. The main difference is that FitzGerald awoke on the eighth day to whatever bounty of breakfast he might so choose. Same goes for the bulk of the population. But the social experiment does draw out illustrations worth a closer look. Of course, FitzGerald and his staff aren't scarfing rice and beans for the next month - or lifetime.

And McDonald's? The fact that the county's highest-ranking executive found himself in line at one of the unhealthiest joints in the country out of pure necessity (albeit for one week) shows the absurdity of the SNAP status quo. It's an absurdity that's compounded due to recent federal and state cuts to the program. For those stuck on SNAP, the dollar menu just got a whole lot more important.

"I think it helped draw some attention to the issue," FitzGerald says. Whether it did or not is unclear, as media outlets in Northeast Ohio chose not to follow up on the results of FitzGerald's challenge. The choir he may or may not be preaching to, however, has taken notice.

"One week!" Dianna King exclaims upon hearing about the food stamp challenge. She's a SNAP user here in Cuyahoga County and she knows a thing or two about getting by. In between guffaws, she tries to make sense of the stunt.

"What I'd really like to see is to see a politician deal with that for a month - to have to deal with $4 a day or less. And then see what they do. And have their whole family go through that. And not have access to their credit cards or anything like that - to just have the money that they qualify for. And see if anything will change after they go through that. One week! I can do one week. I do it all the time, and somehow [my family and I] make it through the month."

In the bitter teeth of a North Shore winter, everything is more difficult than it should be. Walking becomes a Herculean task. Simply breathing is an exercise in self-punishment. For those without jobs, homes or stocked fridges and pantries, it's indescribably worse.

King is speaking to a crowd of near-frozen Cuyahoga County residents in mid-December on Public Square, which is suffering through the first of several cold snaps that's turned the concrete plaza into something even less hospitable. But King is here, speaking for herself and on behalf of those caught in the same eddie of tough times. The food stamps program has been slashed by the feds. Resources are tighter than ever. And the Ohio Statehouse isn't helping matters.

Recent cuts enacted Nov. 1 of last year pushed King's already slim benefits to brutally low levels. She received just $154 in October to feed her family of five. That was down to a meager $110 by January.  

Wracked with the chore of channeling that support into a monthly grocery list, King spells it out to Scene in stark terms: "I try to get as much of the staples as I can - the meat, the bread, the milk. To me, $110 is, you know, that'd be a budget for just one week. Not four weeks. I stretch it out as much as I can. So if you get $110, what are you gonna get? What are you gonna go without?"

There are two major forces at work within the food stamps program here in Ohio. Here's the big one: In November, the massive federal funding boost to SNAP expired. Benefits shrunk to an average of $1.40 per person per meal. And, nationally, $39 billion will be stripped over a decade.

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich announced the end of an ongoing and familiar work requirement waiver for able-bodied adults (ages 18-49) in the system. That news came out in September. To be sure, an increased burden for the local job market isn't an easy thing to bear. Joseph Gauntner, administrator of the county's Department of Health and Human Services, says that about 29,000 residents will be affected by that change in state policy.

The federal cuts, of course, affect all 278,014 county residents currently using food stamps (as of Jan. 1).

That's 22 percent of the county's population, by the way.

In 2000, 109,006 Cuyahoga County residents were registered in SNAP. At the time, that was just shy of 8 percent of the population. And especially given a regional population that's shrinking, what's with the rising dependence on food stamps?

"There was already the strain of the unemployment issue. There's also the working poor - those are the people working one, two or more part-time jobs and still not being able to make it. A lot of the times, after the rent and the bills there's very little left over for anything like food," King says. "Because there wasn't an increase when it comes to the food pantries, what's already strained is strained even more."

She pauses, then decides to repeat that last part: "What's already strained is strained even more."

The word "supplemental" is a really important hallmark of SNAP. The modern food stamps program began in the early 1960s, leading to the Food Stamp Act of 1964. Its purposes included growing the agricultural economy and ensuring some level of nutrition for the country's poorest citizens. To this day, the financial intent of SNAP benefits is to cover up to 75 percent of users' grocery needs. Per the USDA, 20 percent of SNAP enrollees have no income.

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