by Monte Sahlin
By AT News Team, January 31, 2014
As the United States Congress votes to cut significant funding from the program that feeds the poor in America, Adventist community service ministries across the country were already seeing increases in need. Still popularly called "food stamps," the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) budget reductions will take about $90 a month away from each of nearly one million families, many of them employed full time at such low pay that they cannot adequately feed their children. "That is one meal per day off the table," an Adventist who works with poverty and nutrition told Adventist Today.
Community food pantries operated by Adventist churches have been reporting large increases in the numbers of families asking for help over the last year or more. For example, Good Neighbor House in Dayton, Ohio, was providing food for about 650 people each months in 2012 and that increased to 1,300 per month in the last half of 2013. Adventist community service centers in a number of other cities across the country gave Adventist Today similar reports.
"It's frustrating," said Sheila Hendricks, executive director of Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington. "People should not have to make a choice whether to pay the electric bill or feed their family; not in our country!" She stated that the food program was already hampered by many kinds of restrictions before the latest cuts were proposed. Poor families cannot use food stamps to get necessary staples like "laundry soap, dish soap, paper towels or toilet paper," and they can only get U.S. Department of Agriculture surplus items once a month no matter how small the amounts get.
Tom Randa, executive director of Good Neighbor Community Center sponsored by the Adventist churches in Lincoln, Nebraska, told Adventist Today that his volunteers have been providing food to more than 600 families each month through the fall, but "from the numbers, I can't really make a solid conclusion as to whether changes in government funding for SNAP benefits have affected our numbers" because "sources of our food in Lincoln are very low." The lack of supplies of donated food limits the number of families that can be assisted.
The Coalition for Human Need, a national, secular organization that includes all of the regional food banks in America, has reported that the food banks are having difficulty increasing the supply of groceries donated to them. The food banks get their donations from large grocery companies and as these corporations become more efficient at reducing waste in their operations, the amount of surplus inventory they can donate declines.
Marcia Ehlers, assistant director at Good Neighbor House in Dayton, said, "I can't depend totally on the food bank [so] we rely on individual donations through our churches, through the Golden Buckeyes seniors group" and other civic organizations." Several churches of other denominations also give Good Neighbor House regular donations in cash and food supplies, although it is an Adventist agency. She tries to get on the agenda at three or four groups each week to make a plea for their help. There are 70 to 80 other food pantries in the metropolitan area that also get supplies from the food bank.
An early indicator of the impact of the changes in the SNAP program, Ehlers reported, "We have seen an increase in our volunteers" because the law in Ohio now requires recipients to do 40 to 70 hours of volunteer work each month. Even though most are single parents and already have full-time jobs, they have to find a way to do this additional work "because they need the food. I know we are going to have a lot more people coming in."
More than one of the directors that Adventist Today interviewed mentioned another trend: The increase of senior citizens who come in for groceries because they have grandchildren living with them and their budget cannot cope with the additional food needed. And, "some people who were donors in the past are now in the line getting served."
Ehlers also believes in prayer to raise the resources her center must have to meet the needs of the poor in this Midwestern city hard hit by changes in the manufacturing sector. "If you pray with faith, God's going to come through," Ehlers told Adventist Today. She told two stories that are powerful examples for her.
"We ran out of tomato sauce," a staple in cooking family meals in this part of the country. "There was none in the food bank or at other pantries. I went in the office, shut the door and prayed." Moments later she received a phone call. "A friend said there is a wreck on the highway. There are 38,000 cans of tomato sauce. Can you use it?"
Another time the center was completely depleted of dishware to distribute. "I prayed again and within 45 minutes got a phone call from a country club. They said we are trying to give away our old china. Do you want it. It was six vans full."
"The Bible says a lot about the poor," said Hendricks. "God expects us to take care of the poor, but it is easy to forget that when we live in a country that is fairly affluent. We are going to be held accountable. It is very important that we take care of those who are less fortunate."
There are more than 400 cities that have an Adventist Community Services center, although most of these are entirely volunteer operations that open only one day a week. Fewer than 50 have employed a professional, full-time director and are open to the public several days a week. The smaller operations generally provide only a food pantry and clothing program or maybe a thrift store. The larger agencies often provide additional services such as medical and dental clinics, literacy and English-as-a-Second-Language classes, job-finding and health promotion activities.