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.

In short, SNAP is meant to be a safety net. The churn of a local workforce dictates that those who are able should seek employment and, in turn, buy into the economy of goods and services.

These days, a general map of income disparities shows a growing gap between the rich and the poor. Jobs have vanished en masse along that spectrum. For those in need, SNAP is maintained to supplement scant incomes and help foster nutrition. Every little bit counts, to be sure, but SNAP benefits levels have dropped to miniscule amounts.

In 2009, the federal government boosted funding for the program by nearly 14 percent. This was part of the federal stimulus package - the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The phase-out accelerated from 2010 onward, spurred by both sides of the political aisle. The average monthly support statewide now clocks in at $133.50 per person. That's little more than $4 per day.

That major safety net began fraying, even as job markets stagnated in depressed areas like Northeast Ohio, which is leading the country in job loss (8,100 jobs lost in the past year alone).

"This is about economics," Pam Rosado, outreach coordinator for Policy Matters Ohio, says. "Those food stamps help boost our economy. We're talking about a loss of about $15 million to our community...We're talking about millions of dollars that would be spent in this community and spent on a basic need - a basic need of life."

And the second front of food assistance hell - the renewed work requirements for certain Ohioans - isn't helped at all by the bleak prospects of getting any sort of work here in Cleveland.

Rosado says that the state of Ohio currently has 10,000 work slots set aside that comply with SNAP requirements. But there are an estimated 134,000 people in need of those jobs in Ohio, as of December. "That's math that you can't even do!" she exclaims.

Nevertheless, the county is taking a stab at it. The Department of Health and Human Services is spending $800,000 in overtime pay to make phone calls to the 29,000 affected residents by the work requirements. That's just to touch base and make sure everyone in the program is up-to-date on the latest news out of Columbus. Officials in the county's Department of Health and Human Services say that few SNAP users were aware of the new policy. Employees are making calls, but only 20-30 percent of people are coming in to re-up.

The running theory in government services is that folks on benefits won't get in touch with the county until their benefits are cut, which officials say will happen if people don't return the phone calls.

The state's new policy also gives County Executive Ed FitzGerald a chance to flesh out his approach to hunger issues and to preview anti-Kasich rhetoric for his gubernatorial run. "This is a substantive policy that is going to be imposed on thousands of people in this county," he said at a December County Council meeting. "The state really dropped us - dropped the people. That's who's getting hurt."

And even if FitzGerald is ramping up the rhetoric for personal gain, somebody's gotta speak for these folks.

Dana Irribarren, executive director of the Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland, says that the impact of SNAP cuts has been clearly visible for a few months now. Those in the trenches saw this coming a long time ago. Compared to last year, the trend is undeniable: The flood of hungry seeking out food from local pantries is growing.

In October 2013, 38,772 people were served at the network's 34 hunger centers. That's a significant jump from the 34,287 served in October 2012. By November, the situation was becoming starker. An increase from 39,669 in November 2012 to 46,741 in November 2013 shows the difference in even more damning terms. The bottom line: Irribarren is seeing an 18-percent jump in the needy.

"I think that's directly a result of the food stamp cuts," she says. "That trend is really disturbing."

The numbers aren't yet finalized for December 2013, but Irribarren says that estimates are pointing to more of this growth. Small jumps came each month during the summer of 2013 - 500 additional people here and there - but nothing like what began happening as cuts went into place.

Compounding the problematic increase in demand is the stasis of supply and resources. It's a matter of federal and state funding, sure, but there's also the matter of a whole population tightening its belt and simply giving less to charity - or focusing on other causes with what little they have to provide. Volunteers at local food pantries say that goodwill and a dash of creativity ensure that ends are met. But "just getting by" isn't the metric anyone's shooting for.

On a bustling afternoon at the Calvary Lutheran Hunger Center, based out of the basement of a small church on Euclid Avenue in East Cleveland, people trundle down the concrete steps behind the building and duck down before knocking on an imposing metal door. A gentleman staffing the Cleveland Sight Center table within grants entry. Inside, people mingle quietly with the volunteers and wait their turn. Evan Stewart is the manager here, and he's working hard in a small pantry behind long tables full of bagged pasta, sliced bread and canned goods.

"We have seen at least a 25- or 30-percent increase," he says. "Since Nov. 1, maybe even as high as 40 percent."

One woman agrees, telling Scene that recent months have seen more and more people showing up for help. She's holding a small cardboard ticket that reads "17." Kinda like the deli counter down the street, the hunger center customers take a number and wait their turn. Instead of choice cuts, they're gathering staples for the days ahead. And this woman, who chose to withhold her name, says that getting a number as high as "17" was unthinkable just a few months ago. But these places are much busier now.

This is one main artery for the hungry. With cuts to one resource - food stamps - comes an influx toward another.

The hunger centers provide an indispensable supplement to area families' diets. The once-monthly visits may only take care of a few days' need, but every bit of help matters. Everyone here lauds the work of the volunteers with immeasurable enthusiasm.

Stewart is packing up brown bags with all manner of food. He wrangles a few ready-made packages and sends them out to the tables in the main room. In between bursts of work, he says that corporate donations and, as always, the kindness of the people in the community have gone a long way in ensuring a sense of stability. Then he's back at it.

"They've been a good help for me in really supporting my family," Bill Parker says. He's been out of work for eight months now. Five months ago, he made his first visit to the Calvary Lutheran Hunger Center. "It's not about pride; I've got a family. It's been difficult, and I count my blessings."

Parker smiles affably and says these monthly trips to the hunger center are sort of a bridge between losing work and finding it again. That's the intent of these places: Lend people in need a bit of assistance and they'll be better off in the long run --  less stress at home, more time for the job hunt, and the peace of mind that comes with a healthier diet.

The woman holding #17 hasn't gotten any closer to being called up. She settles in for the afternoon, waiting her turn because there's little else to do. More broadly speaking, the same morass awaits: Resources are down, but you've still got to eat. Her personal food stamp issuance was cut from $28 to $25 in November, which gets stretched to the point of absurdity once bills are paid and her family draws up the grocery list.

All of which is to say that the average, mostly well-off Cuyahoga County family doesn't have to confront literal pangs of hunger or the sorts of decisions that pit vegetables against, say, gasoline or your children's school supplies.

"As you continue to be poor for a longer period of time, that stuff (social safety nets, help from friends and family) starts disappearing. That's when the changes start really occurring in households," Irribarren says. "And we have a very high population of low-income people now."

Thing is, it takes a lot of time and money to be poor. And people who don't fall into that category typically don't grasp the reality of life as a hungry person. Of course, there's always the Food Stamp Challenge.

"I'm fucking starving." That's what celebrity chef Mario Batali said when he participated. And he probably was.  "Rice and beans is in my lunch every day," he said at the time. Batali listed other recipes he made for dinners, but the amount of time planning and shopping, not to mention Batali's culinary expertise, isn't really a measuring stick for the single mom down the street.

Nor is really anything that Batali experiences. Things like the Food Stamp Challenge do little more than parody the real-life frustration of families who go hungry. It's not easy to think clearly when the emptiness of hunger sets in. Given a seven-day exercise in extreme budgeting, participants won't ever feel that void. And that's the physiological difference.

Public figures like Batali or Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) grasp headlines more than awareness for the plight of the poor. These are, after all, enticing human interest stories. But surely those headlines matter. A ridiculous quote from a celebrity chef will grab more eyes and ears than a swath of USDA stats and op-ed from the activist down the street.

Locally, though, FitzGerald's own endeavor didn't get nearly the attention that other public figures nabbed.

The county executive's week of oatmeal and cheeseburgers passed by without so much as a sniff from reporters. There certainly wasn't any open dialogue about pushing for increases in SNAP funding or redirecting allocations for Big Agriculture and the Farm Bill toward more local, sustainable food models. Not a word.

And the rally on Public Square last month? King and several dozen more food stamp users and advocates sounded the alarms for action. But everyone there already knew how dire the situation has become.

To distill one last myth about the whole endeavor, another point involves the simple fact that food stamp users comprise not only the homeless and the outright poor. County data wouldn't jump from SNAP rates of 8 percent to 22 percent in 14 years without some statistical creep from the middle class.

What's going to matter most is how the region as a whole - from the top down - responds.

In County Council Chambers, FitzGerald waxes political, which suits his role better than that recent spate of PR blips: "The war on the poor is not rhetorical...It's substantive, and this is a substantive policy that's going to be imposed on thousands of people in this county."

He was adding his voice to the discussion about the county's massive expenditure to phone thousands of SNAP-eligible residents and began ranting against Kasich. Given the tenor of the council presentation and the legislators' studied lines of debate, Fitz's input seemed brash. But surely something's gotta give among the region's powerful.

Down at the Public Square rally, as participants brace themselves against the bitter cold, South Euclid City Councilman Marty Gelfand stands before the statue of former Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson. He's shivering, but he still manages to spill concern about the ripple effects of the federal cuts.

"The storekeepers in South Euclid and other communities around the area - they are their employees aren't getting that money for food at that place of business," he says. "And those employees, what are they going to do?"

A woman in the crowd interjects: "They're going to have to qualify for food stamps, like everyone else!"

In late December, Gelfand sponsored a resolution in his city opposing the federal cuts. It passed unanimously.

And that action kinda represents the limit of local government here. King, meanwhile, is not alone in saying that more is needed: "Passing a resolution is all well and good, but the ones passing those resolutions probably don't know what a person has to deal with. They can pass a resolution, but what does that mean to a person who's on that program?"

Everyone - the represented and the representatives alike - is looking for solutions. Dana Irribarren, speaking in her office at the Hunger Network's downtown headquarters, throws up her hands at times as she discusses The Problem. The number she's running on the computer before her aren't pleasant. She's been working with the region's hungry for decades, and the same axis of supply and demand is getting dosed by the same old IV of entropy. Same as it ever was.

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