TAMPA — Shaun Ford found out Friday how much changes to the federal food stamp program would hit his pantry.
The benefits that arrived the first day of the month turned out to be 10 percent less than they had been for the past two years — from $200 for the month down to $180.
Ford, 31, came to Tampa on Friday afternoon with his mother, Jacqueline Sundsted, from their home in Thonotosassa to register for Metropolitan Ministries' holiday food giveaway.
Sundsted said her food stamp benefits, which she shares with her husband, shrank from $265 for the month to $240 when the boost supplied by the 2009 federal economic stimulus expired.
“We couldn't make it on $265 for two people, how are we supposed to make it on less?” Sundsted said.
Like thousands of food stamp recipients across the Tampa area, Ford and Sundsted rely on charity food pantries to supplement their food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. But that's no guarantee of help, she said.
“Even the churches are running out,” Sundsted said.
The demand for food aid remains high across the region.
In August, nearly 280,000 people received food stamps in Hillsborough County, outstripping by more than 1,500 people the record number the program hit in June, according to the Florida Department of Children & Families.
In September, the federal government paid out nearly $39 million in food stamp benefits in Hillsborough County, another record.
For many, the monthly food stamp support still isn't enough to survive. That's where food pantries come in.
“Many of our people are working people and they just need a little extra help,” said Meredith Elorfi, marketing director for Tampa Jewish Family Services.
The charity opens its food bank to about 450 customers once a month — the first Tuesday in Citrus Park, the first Thursday in Brandon. Elorfi said demand for food help rose 50 percent on Friday alone.
About 1,200 families visited to the food pantry at Metropolitan Ministries in October — double the normal number. In the pantry on Friday, wire shelves that usually hold dozens of cans of peaches were reduced to single rows of cans as the pantry struggled to keep up with demand.
Some visitors are panicked about the drop in food stamp benefits, said Phil Reid, who was helping manage the food pantry on Friday.
“We've seen already about a 70 percent increase in clients coming to us looking for help with food,” said Tim Marks, president of Metropolitan Ministries. “There's some trauma on people's faces. They're worried.”
Friday's drop in benefits is a preview of harder times ahead.
Both houses of Congress are working on legislation that would further shrink the food stamp program — by nearly 5 percent a year in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, by a tenth of that in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Regardless of the final outcome, the loss in food assistance will have a direct impact on the overall economy, said Patrick Mason, a labor economist at Florida State University.
That's because food stamps cause a ripple effect in the broader economy, an effect economists call a multiplier.
“SNAP has an extremely high multiplier — among the highest,” Mason said.
Every dollar spent through the food stamp program produces $1.70 in economic impacts.
The $5 billion nationwide reduction that hit Friday will take $8.65 billion out of the national economy and cost more than 86,000 jobs, Mason said.
“When it comes to generating jobs, another $1 billion in SNAP spending is superior to a $1 billion tax cut,” Mason said.