Guests: Beth Ford Roth, Home Post, KPBS News
Jennifer Gilmore, Interim CEO, Feeding America San Diego
Jennifer Tracy, Executive Director, San Diego Hunger Coalition
Related Story: San Diego's Military, Civilian Families Face Food Stamp Cut
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The move by Republicans in Congress to reduce cuts in defense spending may produce some ironic and disturbing consequences for San Diego's military families. House Republicans have come up with a plan to slash funding for food stamps in order to make up for some of the defense cuts. But the problem is those cuts may wind up affecting thousands of military families and retirees who depend on federal food assistance. Joining me to explain the situation are my guests, Beth Ford Roth is author of the Home Post Blog for KPBS news.
FORD ROTH: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Jennifer Gillmore is interim CEO of Feeding America, San Diego.
GILLMORE: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Jennifer Tracy is director of San Diego Hunger Coalition.
TRACY: Thanks for having us.
CAVANAUGH: Beth, there are a substantial number of military families who need federal food assistance. About how many are we talking about?
FORD ROTH: Well, we don't know for sure. We're talking about more purchases at military commissaries that were made using food stamps. And the latest figures show about $100 million of food purchases were made using food stamps. There's no way to find out who is making those purchases. Some military family groups believe it's veterans who have recently left the military, haven't been able to find a civilian job, and maybe are using the food stamps as a stopgap. It could be military families struggling to make ends meet in this economy. We're not entirely sure. But the numbers were pretty significant.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let's break this down then, who can use a military commissary in order to buy food there? Who's allowed in?
FORD ROTH: It's my understanding active duty troops and their families, retirees, reservists, basically anyone who's been active in the military or is retired from the military.
CAVANAUGH: So how would it happen that a family of someone in the Marine Corps or Navy would qualify for food stamps?
FORD ROTH: Well, basically their income would fall below the level that would make them qualify to get the food stamps. A lot of military families move around so much that you have a spouse who has difficulty finding a job because they're just going to pull up and leave in a few months. So you've got a single family income basically for maybe three or four children and a spouse. So it can add up pretty quickly.
CAVANAUGH: In the article that you had on the Home Post Blog, it seems that number you used, $100 million?
FORD ROTH: Over that.
CAVANAUGH: Of that kind of food stamp usage, that's spiked in recent years. This is only the last three or four years.
FORD ROTH: Right. The stars and stripes, which is the military newspaper, did an examination of the numbers. And really the last four years, from 2008, is when we see that jump. And the biggest jump was between 2008 and 2009. Of and that's really when our economy took a hit. So in 2008, I believe it was $31 million worth of food stamp purchases made at military commissaries. And from June of 2011-June of 2012, we've got more than $100 million used at mill stare commissaries from food stamps.
CAVANAUGH: Is it your experience, Jennifer, that more people are eligible now for food stamps because of the economy?
GILLMORE: Yeah. I mean, we can start with some facts about this program, and why cutting is such a bad idea. The reality is that there is a high level of need. And I know there's been some charts that have been brought out that show how much the program is expected to continue to grow or to decrease slightly. If you look at national numbers, it decreases slightly. If you look at the inflational number, it decreases a lot over the next ten years. There's some tweaking, I think accident of the data that shows a picture that may not be entirely accurate. But there are more people that are eligible because of the recession. And this program is doing exactly what it was designed to do. It grows when there's a need, and it automatically contracts as the economy improves.
CAVANAUGH: What you're saying is that what legislators are looking at in Washington, this big surge in people who are on food stamps, is directly tied to the bad economy.
CAVANAUGH: Now, are there any obstacles for anyone in the military to get food stamps, Beth?
FORD ROTH: Well, we were sort of discussing this in the green room. You might say pride, and not in a negative way, but if you're a military wife and you're trying to keep the home fires burning, basically, you've got kids in school, your husband is overseas in a war zone fighting, he doesn't want to have to worry about his family back home. We found this when there was a problem with raising the debt ceiling. The troops overseas, their No. 1 concern was am I going to get my paycheck? Well, it's the same idea. I would imagine they don't want to have to worry about having their families being fed, and their wives probably don't want to tell them we need to get some assistance in order to put food on the table. Even though you're fighting in a war zone.
CAVANAUGH: Jennifer, what are military families going to do if they don't qualify for food stamps or other government assistance programs? You are with feeding America San Diego. What does your organization do?
TRACY: Well, feeding America San Diego, we distribute about 20 million pound was hunger relief every year. That's a 500% increase from where we were just 48 months ago. 48 months ago, it was three million pounds of food assistance in this community. We are now this year distributing 20 million pound, that's more than a 5% increase in our growth. Going back to the military families, one of the things that not only breaks my heart but really chaps my hide is that these enlisted military members were not eligible for any form of benefits because their housing arc allowance is counted as part of their income. So instead of being able to get food stamps and go to a grocery store with their kids and pick out the food that's appropriate for their family, we are forcing them to seek out a charitable response. And that looks like food lines. That's a distribution where 300 people lineup, and you get what you get. And it's not the ideal way. The ideal way to solve hunger in this community is to provide people with the means, why they need it, to pick the food that's suitable to their family so they're not wasting time in a line when they could be helping their kids study or looking for a job or doing something much more productive.
CAVANAUGH: Based on what Jennifer said, is there actually some controversy as to whether active duty personnel are qualified or are actually using food stamps?
FORD ROTH: I don't know if I would stay there's a controversy. I would say that the Department of Defense isn't really shouting out the numbers that are being used. Military families overseas are not allowed to use food stamps. The military has its own program which we can discuss later. But I would imagine there's some sort of disconnect between the higher ups and the image they of the to project and what the families at the lowest end are dealing with and suffering through.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Jennifer Tracy, I framed this in the beginning as a sort of ironic and ultimately sad situation in that Congress is trying to save the military from budget cuts by cutting the snapprogram, which some military families have to rely on in order to keep food on the table. Is there a denial or a lack of awareness that military families are using food stamps?
TRACY: I'm not sure if it's a lack of awareness. I think it's about priorities. And I think when we look at the budget, the budget is a document of our priorities, and when we talk about cutting programs that insure that children don't go hungry, are that seniors and people with disabilities don't go hungry, over 80% of the people who receive these benefits are children ,people with disabilities, or seniors. The vote that happened this week was a bipartisan vote. The priority about making sure that people who are vulnerable in our communities don't go hungry doesn't seem to be reflecting the values that Americans have. And when you look at the gallop polls, Americans believe that government has a role to play, and they believe that children and seniors should be protected. And if these cuts go through, it's going to have a serious, devastating consequence for people in our communities.
TRACY: In California, it would affect over 100,000 families. You'd see a reduction of over 40-90 thousand dollars in their budgets. And for people who are barely getting by, ask anyone who's familiar with the program, the benefits last 2-3 weeks. So to have a cut like that is going to make it even harder are for people to purchase healthy food. For every additional dollar people get in food assistance, they purchase even healthier food. With all the other problems, like health crises, and obesity, it seems counter intuitive, but providing people with additional dollars helps them buy healthier food.
CAVANAUGH: What happens to programs -- your programs if the food stamp program is cut? Let me go to you, Jennifer Tracy.
RIH3: We advocate for insuring that programs we use effectively in the communities, so when we see a reduction like this, it makes it harder for people to make ends meet
CAVANAUGH: Even more than the 500%?
GILLMORE: And just to put that -- 20 million pounds sounds like a ton of food. A whole lot of meals are getting out there. But what that equates to is per person who actually needs this food in San Diego County. That's about -- it's less than 11 days worth of meals. That's all we're able to do. So if we're cutting the ability for folks to go to the grocery store, and this incredibly important safety net, we're going to see that food, that 11 days worth of food that we're getting out is going to shrink even more. And what we do know is we know that 11 days is not enough. We know that eight weeks is what we really a family needs in terms of food assistance to get back on their feet, and we also know that 170,000 people who we are serving don't even qualify for benefits. They earn too much to qualify for any federal nutrition program. They don't have any place else to go than feeding America San Diego and the partners we work with. So it's going to make it even more difficult for them. A mom starts skipping meals. A dad starts adding water to the milk at the end of the month. That's a kid going to school without eating. And that's just not going to work out for this community in the long run.
TRACY: And just to add to that, I think the other aspect of this that people don't realize is that when a low-income family, hard-working family gets their food stamp or cal fresh benefits in California, those dollars go directly into our local economy. So that's not just those families who are benefiting from this. Our entire economy are impacted by those cuts. It means less cash being spent by that person on other taxable items. So these cuts are going to have a devastating impact not only on local people but our economy as well.
CAVANAUGH: Beth, does the military have its own assistance programs?
FORD ROTH: It does. It's called the family subsistent supplemental allowance. And it was created to help the families overseas that don't -- aren't able to use food stamps at the commissaries there. But basically the service members who qualify for the FSSA are as we discussed before, the junior enlisted members. Young men and women who are married and have big families and are living on a very, very small income.
CAVANAUGH: Is it easy to qualify for? Or do you know?
FORD ROTH: I'm not clear on the qualifications.
CAVANAUGH: But there is something to fall back on?
FORD ROTH: Yes.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Jennifer Gillmore, I was wondering -- there are people who are involved in this budget cutting round who look at the way the ranks of food stamp recipients have swelled. And what they see is people who are trying to get a free ride, they're trying to get this money fraudulently.
GILLMORE: Yeah, like there was the lottery person, and you're, like, oh, just what were they thinking!
CAVANAUGH: But a lot of taxpayers think -- they're upset that their money is going to feed people and their families who may be just trying to get in on some free food. I'm wondering, in your experience, with feeding America San Diego, do you come across a lot of people who are using your services fraudulently?
GILLMORE: If you're going to scam, getting free food assistance is probably one of the worst ways to go about it. The lines are really long, and the amount of food you're actually getting really isn't that substantial compared to your probably overall need. So there are much better scams. We -- does it exist? I bet there are a few fools out there trying to work the system. But the majority of the people we're serving, 67%, have somebody in that household who's working full-time. We're serving people who aren't eligible for any other benefit. We had a meal where we distributed a meal, served everyone, it was a beautiful thing arc I guy with his daughter came up to me and said you wouldn't believe it. Do you like this building? I said I like it very much, sir. And he said I never thought I'd be here getting a free meal. I did all of the drywall work for this building. And those are the stories I'm hearing. People aren't there trying to get a free meal. They're trying to get back to their feet so they don't have to make choices about putting gas in the car and going to work or getting their medication or eating or paying their utility bill or eating. They're having to make choices.
TRACY: And Maureen, I can speak to some of the statistics. I know people have a lot of anecdotes about so-and-so that I saw that was taking advantage. But the reality is that the cal fresh or the snapprogram, the fraud rate is less than 2%, and that includes worker error. So the people who are in this program are eligible and need these benefits. People usually on average get benefits for less than two years. So this isn't a dependancy program. Over half of the people are working, they have income but they work a low-wage job or they're underemployed.
GILLMORE: Last holiday season, Catholic charities distributes food boxes, holiday food baskets, and the Scowls family was on the waiting list, and they went to a caller who said you're getting your benefits, and she said I have better news, I'm getting my cal fresh benefits. Give it to a family who can use it want
CAVANAUGH: Ah, I see. Thank you all very much.
GILLMORE: My pleasure.
GILLMORE: Thank you.
FORD ROTH: Thanks Maureen.