Food stamp cuts hit local families

It's been two months since the federal government cut $5 billion from the federal food stamps program and local families are feeling the pinch.

Take Petaluma resident and Santa Rosa Junior College student Freedom Rocca, 31. Her family of four relies on food stamps to get by each month.

"It was always a little tough to stretch the dollars to the end of the month," said Rocca. "But now, it's gotten much worse. Forget buying anything healthy or organic. By the end of the month, it's Grocery Outlet pasta and that's it."

Rocca, who lives with her boyfriend and their two children, is one of 35,000 food stamp recipients in Sonoma County. She is working toward a degree in child development and hopes to teach preschool, while her boyfriend is finishing a degree in engineering.

As full-time students, both work part-time jobs to cover the $950 monthly rent at their modest, two-bedroom apartment. They always try to conserve, but Rocca's 3-year-old son, Yuma, was born with a condition that left him partially deaf. He requires regular trips to UCSF for treatment, but since the cuts, the family is even more strapped for the money needed to buy gas to get Yuma to his appointments.

"Now, we have to be much more careful," she said.

The Rocca family is not alone. Mike Johnson, CEO of the Committee on the Shelterless, said that while $36 less each month for a family of four may not seem like a lot, it hits hard for families living below the poverty line.

"People who are relying on food stamps were already on the edge of poverty," Johnson said. "While the rest of the country has rebounded and unemployment is going down, things haven't gotten any better for the bottom 20 percent of the population."

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known nationally as SNAP or food stamps, saw program costs soar to almost $80 billion in 2012, which sparked a vote to reduce its pricetag by $20 billion over the next 10 years by reducing benefits and making it tougher to qualify.

Starting on Nov. 1, a single person who receives food stamps in Sonoma County saw their monthly benefits drop from $200 to $189, while benefits for a household of four went from $668 to $632. Johnson said these cuts often force low-income families to decide between paying the rent and eating.

"If you're trying to decide between paying the rent or feeding your family, you're going to feed your family," said Johnson. "But if you do that for several months, you're going to get evicted and suddenly you're homeless. Then, these so-called 'savings' become more expensive, since the cost of getting people out of homelessness is far higher than the cost of feeding the hungry."

To help families deal with the cuts, COTS continues to deliver about 400 boxes of food to families in Petaluma each week."We call it a homeless prevention program," said Johnson. "We distribute about 760,000 pounds of food every year to families living on the edge, free of charge."

But the popular local food program has also seen cuts, due to the loss of local redevelopment funds. Johnson said they can no longer accept new applications, though he knows the need is rising -#8212; especially since SNAP was cut back.

Health is another concern for Rocca. She is Native American and her boyfriend is Mexican, ethnicities that face a higher risk of developing nutrition-based diseases, like diabetes. But eating healthy is tough on food stamps.

"At the beginning of the month, I shop at a discount grocery store that carries organic produce," she said. "But by the end of the month, all we can afford is pasta. We can't even get the fresh fruits and vegetables."

Rocca said she looks forward to the day when her family won't rely on food stamps. Once she and her boyfriend graduate from college, she hopes her family will be in a better financial situation.

"Every month is a struggle," she said. "I'll just be glad to finish school, and be working full-time. Until then, it's all about surviving."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)