The questions from people experiencing "food insecurity"—the bureaucratic term for living in fear of hunger or starvation—came fast.
In the first week of November, Bag n' Hand Pantry at St. John's United Methodist Church got more requests for help than ever before, says Paul D'Arcy, program chairman. People representing 281 households asked for groceries at its Tuesday and Thursday giveaways of bags of food, which will reach close to 700 individuals, he says.
D'Arcy estimates the average number of households served per week is about 240–a number that's about 10 percent higher than last year, and despite the fact that the economy, by many measures, is healthier than it was last year. In 2012, he says, Bag n' Hand reached a high in the number of households served, but 2013 is shaking out to be even busier.
"That's the highest we've ever done," D'Arcy says of the number of households who picked up bags last week. "So something is going on out there and I'm not smart enough to identify completely what I think it is."
"The need is great," says Joseph Cisneros, commander for the Salvation Army's Santa Fe location.
"This problem is not going to go away," says Susan Odiseos, president of the board of directors of Food for Santa Fe, which operates a drive-through grocery give-away at 1222 Siler Road. Odiseos says last week she talked to three people who were using the service for the first time. "I haven't observed that in the past," she says.
In 2009, with markets crashing and credit freezing, federal lawmakers temporarily boosted benefits for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, into an economic recovery package. But those temporary benefits for 47 million Americans were cut back to pre-recession levels starting Nov. 1.
In New Mexico, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), about 21 percent of the population will be impacted by the cuts. New Mexico, according to those numbers, has one of the highest population shares of people on SNAP in states across the nation.
The total financial cuts to SNAP amount to an estimated $5 billion in fiscal year 2014, according to the CBPP. For households of four, that means $36 a month cut in SNAP, according to CBPP; $29 per month for households of three; $20 a month for households of two and $11 a month for an individual. And each recipient now gets about $1.40 to spend on each meal.
With the new reductions, a household of four receives up to $632 per month; a household of three gets up to $497 a month; a household of two gets up to $347 a month; and a household of one gets up to $189 a month.
But put another way, the $5 billion in SNAP reductions amounts to the total amount of food distributed nationally by charities, says Sherry Hooper, executive director of Santa Fe-based Food Depot, which is at the center of the food distribution chain through its mission of providing food to organizations in a nine-county area in Northern New Mexico.
Those nonprofits are supposed to fill in the void left by the government, but organization executives say they're already stretched thin.
"For us to replace the cuts made in food stamps made in just this round of cuts means that charities across the country would have to double their distribution of food," Hooper says. "And at this point food banks like the Food Depot and the food pantries are ill-equipped to handle that increase in distribution of food."
Organizations like the Bag n' Hand Pantry, the Salvation Army and Food for Santa Fe are seeing the impact.
In addition to relying on donations from 100 local product donors like grocery stores, restaurants and the like, the Food Depot works with the New Mexico Human Services Department to distribute US Department of Agriculture commodities food, and also is a part of Feeding America, a national food bank network wherein large food companies donate overproduced food, food with damaged packaging or new food on the market that doesn't make it off the shelves. The organization also relies on food drives locally, Sherry says, but it's spending more of its operating budget on wholesale purchasing "than we ever have before."
As the recession lingers, people have been donating less money, and now food companies are making fewer mistakes on the production line, she says, resulting in a drying supply of commodities from the national level.
"That's happening at the same time then that locally the…volunteers are aging at agencies," she says. "And so they have fewer resources today in terms of labor. I mean, that's another issue that's hitting a lot of food banks."
At the Salvation Army on West Alameda, which provides hot breakfasts and dinners on weekdays, a sign on the front door notes that business hours have been reduced "due to funding cuts." Cisneros is worried about earning enough donations not only for the holidays, but for the period after the holidays, which he calls the "lean months."
"We have to work really hard, especially with the minimum wage, we have to hire employees. You know at $10.51 an hour it's a killer," he says. "You pay half of it, it goes to pay employees. So we're working really hard to try and see how we're going to stay above water until after the holidays."
On the evening of Nov. 8, about a half-dozen individuals showed up for a quick meal, but they all said they weren't on food stamps. Some were homeless.
Still, with the cuts in the SNAP, more families are showing up for a hot meal, he says.
"Like yesterday there were a few families that came in because their food stamps were running low and they didn't want to get to that point where they weren't going to make it," he says, "so they brought in their family, their kids, and they [ate] here."
Dozens lined up at the Bag n' Hand Pantry on Nov. 12, including Deborrah Hatt, a single mother of a 14-year-old son. Her SNAP allotment was recently cut to $224 per month due to the federal reduction and a financial change. She says she had already "struggled with" her previous allotment of $367 per month. Typically she says she'll spend all of her SNAP allotment within days of receiving it, and when her EBT card—much like a credit card—is maxed out, she finds herself at pantries like Bag n' Hand.
"We need to supplement," she says. "I mean this food doesn't last very long, because it spoils quickly. So, you know, you buy your staples, like your meats and stuff, with the food stamps. And you hope that the produce is good enough to use it, that the bread lasts long enough."