Tester tours food bank to see effects of nutrition assistance cuts

Billings Gazette

by Susan Olp

With Congress considering cuts to programs like nutrition assistance, the effects of those cuts could be felt by local service agencies left to pick up the slack.

With that in mind, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester toured the Billings Food Bank on Saturday morning. Tester wanted to get a feel for how the proposed $9 billion funding decrease in food stamps – officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – would affect the Billings nonprofit.

“While we’re concerned about the deficit and the debt, we’ve got to make sure we’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul and creating more problems while we’re trying to solve them,” Tester said.

SNAP provides nutrition assistance to nearly 47 million people in the United States, and about 125,000 in Montana. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly 72 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children and more than one-quarter of participants are in households with seniors or people with disabilities.

Funding for SNAP is tied to the five-year farm bill, which both chambers of Congress passed versions of and now is in a conference committee. Initially the House wanted to cut $40 billion from SNAP and the Senate, $4 billion.

On Saturday, Tester said the most recent figure he’s heard regarding cuts to SNAP is $9 billion, which he called workable.

“That’s a little more than the Senate passed but it’s quite a bit less than the House passed,” Tester said. “That would have been a pretty healthy cut. That would have put some folks at risk.”

Tester toured the two-story facility with Executive Director Sheryle Shandy and two board members, Don Thoreson and Mary O’Dea. Tester visited the huge warehouse where rows of shelves hold thousands of cans of food.

Volunteers taped together various-sized boxes that will hold food given out through the different programs.

“We supply more food to more people than anyone in the state.” Thoreson told Tester.

In 2013, 10 million pounds of food passed through the Billings Food Bank, Shandy said. The food bank, with an annual administrative budget of $900,000, serves individuals and other agencies in an 11-county area.

Asked by Tester how many requests there were compared to the previous year, Shandy said they’re up considerably. Over the past couple of years, the most-served age group has been senior adults.

“But now we have a lot of (large) families that have not been in before that have been cut off from SNAP,” Shandy said. “We never used to have so many big families.”

When Tester asked if the food bank has the capacity to meet the increasing demands, Shandy said yes. In addition to private donations and foundation grants, Shandy said the food bank has a network of 90 churches it can turn to for food donations when the need arises.

Not all food banks are as fortunate, Shandy said. Some that rely on government funding are hurting now that that source of money is drying up.

Shandy showed Tester the second-floor Fortin Culinary Center, where unemployed and underemployed people can enroll in 12-week training sessions. Since the center opened in 2011, the 75 students who have graduated are all working in food settings in the community.

“I very much applaud that effort,” Tester said. “Because I think the unemployment rate is too high, but some of it really is dependent upon jobs that are available.”

People aren’t trained for the jobs that are available, he said. “So anytime we can do education and retraining, I think it’s going to help.”

As for the long-awaited farm bill itself, Tester said predicting its passage has been tricky.

“My crystal ball has been cloudy on this one,” he said.

The Senate passed the farm bill almost a year ago, Tester said, and he initially anticipated its final passage last summer. But that didn’t account for the continued wrangling between the Senate and the House.

Tester predicted September, and then Christmas. And now it’s caught up in dairy negotiations, he said.

“I think they’re very, very close,” Tester said. “I talked to the chairman of the Senate Ag Committee, Debbie Stabenow, and she feels like we should have something done and probably will have something done if not by the end of January, then the first week of February.”