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

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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.

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