Hunger pains


Josie Gray almost never exits a grocery store with a massive cartload of food. It’s just not her style — or in her budget.

But the 78-year-old still manages to concoct nutritious meals made with whatever is available. She awaits that monthly call from The Church of the Redeemer Baptist, 24th and Dickinson streets, so she can pick up her boxed goods. The free items (canned milk, fruits and vegetables, to name a few) don’t fulfill all of her dietary needs, but it certainly adds to the food she purchases.

"It’s good things and basic things we can make meals out of, which is wonderful to me," Gray said.

Using what she had, a resourceful Gray made a tuna salad last week by combining some of these foods supplied and funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). Subsisting on $1,000 a month, the resident makes sure the food stretches far, since her only income is from Social Security and an annuity.

"I’m paying a homeowner’s loan, too," Gray, of the 2300 block of Dickinson Street, added. "Believe me, I don’t have nothing left."

The resident allots only about $35 every two weeks for groceries, making the purchase of the gratis goods (an estimated retail value of $50) an impossibility. However, Gray might have to start doing just that — or learn to go hungry more often.

Outlined in President George Bush’s 2008 budget plan, the $108 million CSFP is intended to be eliminated. The program, administered through the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, provides food and administrative funds to residents within certain sections of 32 states, Washington, D.C., and two Indian reservations.

Low-income seniors, pregnant women, mothers up to one year postpartum and families with infants and children up to age 6 are eligible for the program aimed at supplying nutrients typically overlooked by these groups. All parties must pass income-eligibility requirements.

The government purchases the commodities at wholesale prices. The edibles are then delivered to participating states, who contract with food banks to distribute the goods to residents.

Nationwide, the program assisted more than 462,000 residents last year with care packages of canned produce, juices, peanut butter, cereal, tuna, cheese, evaporated milk and macaroni.

Locally, the SHARE (Self-Help and Resource Exchange) Food Program of Pennsylvania, which has a state food purchase contract for Philadelphia County, serves 483 food cupboards. While 3,340 residents are receiving CSFP food, the number eligible is more than 67,000.

"There’s a demand and a tremendous need, so the direction of completely eliminating the program is just insane," Steveanna Wynn, SHARE’s executive director, said.

The program’s removal also was proposed last year through the Bush administration’s budget, but was rejected by Congress. Wynn equates the supplemental food more necessity than luxury for residents in need of this governmental help.

"For seniors, with the out-of-pocket costs of prescriptions, with the increase in energy costs, this program is crucial to keep them going," she said. "This is not steak and lobster. This is just basic food to prevent people from going hungry in the commonwealth."

A growing trend in CSFP’s users, Wynn said, are grandparents raising children without any additional financial support.

However, the USDA claims they already have an entity available — the Food Stamp Program — for participants like seniors who require nutrition assistance. But many in this group are not taking advantage of the aid, with only 60 percent of people eligible using the program, Jean Daniel, a USDA spokeswoman, said.

If approved by Congress, the move from the CSFP to food stamps will include provisions.

"What the president has proposed is not just to say, ‘On date certain, you don’t get anything,’" Daniel said. "While participants are transitioning to the Food Stamp Program, there will be benefits to ease in this transition."

Daniel said residents could receive a "monthly benefit" to purchase food during CSFP’s phasing out. In addition, "outreach money" would be provided to states to assist residents getting familiarized with food stamps.

While calling food stamps a "wonderful program" that "does a lot of good and prevents a lot of people from going hungry," Wynn said it’s not the only answer. Some seniors, she continued, aren’t eligible for its funds, while others receive an amount not conducive to their needs. "Food stamps are not meant to feed the family for a month," Wynn said.

Daniel countered, saying residents currently eligible for CSFP food will "more than likely" be eligible for food stamps. Eligibility for the latter is for residents earning up to 130 percent of the poverty level.

Daniel added the average benefit for seniors enrolled in the Food Stamp Program is $45 per month.

The USDA is working on breaking this program’s misconceptions.

"A number of seniors are very much like my mother who grew up in the Depression, who have a great deal of pride and don’t want to accept welfare," Daniel said. "The Food Stamp Program is not a welfare program but a nutrition-assistance program, and we’ve been trying to help people understand that."

However, a February report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., stated many seniors nationwide already receive both food-stamp and CSFP aid, and elimination of the latter would compromise their food security.

Congress is expected to vote on the proposal by late summer or early fall, Daniel said, adding the USDA will work with the government to ensure citizens’ food needs are met.

For residents like Gray, she knows not receiving her monthly packages would make life more difficult. "It would be a tough road," she said. "I just have to do the best I can. When you’re poor in life, you learn how to do the best you can."