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Merced County Food Bank braces for gov’t shutdown cuts that could affect thousands of people

Merced County Food Bank braces for potential government shutdown cuts

As the shutdown of the federal government drags on with little prospects for resolution, Merced County Food Bank officials said Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, they are worried for a worst-case scenario: the loss of food stamp funding.
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As the shutdown of the federal government drags on with little prospects for resolution, Merced County Food Bank officials said Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, they are worried for a worst-case scenario: the loss of food stamp funding.

As the shutdown of the federal government drags on with few prospects for resolution, Merced County Food Bank officials said Thursday they are worried about the potential loss of food-stamp funding.

Executive Director Bill Gibbs said his food bank has little recourse to try to prepare for a potential worst-case scenario, cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, more commonly called food stamps.

The food bank aids 15,000 to 17,000 people in Merced County per month, Gibbs said. More than 51,000 children, adults and seniors get aid through CalFresh, California’s version of SNAP, according to county staffers.

“We don’t get any extra food if they reduce SNAP benefits,” Gibbs said on Thursday. “We only serve about a third of those people. If 50,000 people lose their benefits, we’re going to see a 200 percent increase in people. We would not be able to meet that demand.”

The food bank is essentially working at its full capacity to serve the people it does now, he said. Its current budget is about $1 million, Gibbs said, and would have to triple if it needed to support all of those SNAP consumers.

The Merced location on Olive Avenue is the main hub that aids 24 sites in Los Banos, Atwater and Mariposa, to name a few pantries. Then there are the 16 sites that supplement the diets of seniors.

Another hitch in the shutdown that affects the food bank is the U.S. Department of Agriculture food inspectors who aren’t working during the shutdown. “There is a backlog of food inspection that is impacting food supply within the food bank system,” Gibbs said. “If that continues that will be very problematic.”

Food insecurity is a problem for many in the Central San Joaquin Valley. Close to 30 percent of children in Merced County don’t know when their next full, healthy meal will come.

The Trump administration said this week SNAP would get funding through February. The problem flared up this week in Washington after House Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue demanding an explanation on how he would keep SNAP afloat during the shutdown. Current funding was due to dry up by the end of January.

The USDA issued a statement Tuesday saying it would use a stipulation in a recently expired congressional continuing resolution to fund SNAP benefits until the end of February. Children’s nutritional programs within SNAP are funded through March.

President Donald Trump’s administration and House Democratic leaders have been at an impasse for about three weeks over Trump’s demand that any appropriations bill include funding for a southern border wall.

SNAP provides an average of $125 per person and $245 per household to about 38 million people and 19 million U.S. households, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The House Committee on Appropriations estimated the Food and Nutrition Service, the USDA agency in charge of SNAP, would have to cut about 40 percent of SNAP benefits at the end of January should the shutdown continue.

The food bank also relies on a number of partnerships with local farmers, who themselves face a myriad of problems associated with the shutdown such as a lack of tariff relief and cuts to key USDA programs.

The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.

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