Food Pantries Stretch To Fill 'Safety Net' Role

Larry Hastings and thousands of other struggling people in Texas are now looking away from government to a new "safety net."

The lawn-maintenance worker arrived early on a hot Wednesday morning at Caritas of Austin, a privately run social-service agency, hoping to get a few bags of groceries. He used to receive $118 a month in food stamps for his family of five, but under new US rules he won't be eligible for any more government food aid until August 2000.

Changes in the federal program have forced 1.5 million people off food stamps over the past five months - and have dramatically increased the demand for food at private organizations like Caritas. The agency, like similar groups across the nation, worries the demand is becoming so great that it won't be able to fulfill its basic mission: meeting people's need for food.

Caritas was able to give Mr. Hastings a couple of bags filled with canned goods and other food. But the agency, one of the largest free food distributors in Austin, is stretched to the limit.

Typically Caritas operates for nine months with the food it collects during an annual food drive. "This year we operated about six months off of it," says executive director Eileen Earhart Oldag. "We have really been in a crunch the last six weeks. We can't get enough food."

Likewise, food banks in Virginia, Colorado, Georgia, and other states have recently seen demand for food grow by as much as 68 percent, says David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Maryland based-antihunger group. Food banks and food pantries have become the primary safety net for the poor, but that safety net is "a patchwork quilt with a lot of patches missing," he says.

In the wake of cuts in the federal program, some Texas legislators tried to provide state-funded food assistance. In the end, however, Texas has done nothing to fill the gap left by the federal cuts.

Critics of the welfare system say Texas is taking the right course. Many say food give-aways unwittingly undermine US policy - especially new laws designed to stem immigration and to promote self-sufficiency among the poor.

Robert Rector, a welfare analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, says food banks and food pantries may be destined to fail - not because they won't have enough food but because they do not require enough of their customers.

Food pantries are "fostering dependence," he says. If they want to survive, they will have to adopt work requirements similar to those now being used by government, he says. "If you put a minimum work requirement on people in order to get that free food, the demand for that food would drop very precipitously."

K.C. McAlpin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform says giving food stamps to noncitizens was "absolutely unfair to American taxpayers and to many legal immigrants who don't abuse our welfare system." He says that there has been "enormous abuse" of food stamps by noncitizens and that Congress had no choice but to radically cut their benefits.

According to Congressional Budget Office figures, almost 1.5 million people have lost food-stamp benefits over the past several months - two-thirds of them legal immigrants. The savings to taxpayers, says the CBO, will be at least $2.1 billion per year.

Of noncitizens who were getting food stamps, about 10 percent (100,000 people) live in Texas. The cutoff has brought many of them - as well as working poor US citizens such as Hastings - to agencies like Caritas.

HASTINGS has a new job that pays $5.15 an hour, but his first paycheck won't come until the end of the month. Until then, he and his wife, who earns about $180 a week working in a restaurant, need to put food on the table for their three teenagers. "Keeping shoes on the kids' feet is hard, and now that school is starting, it's even worse," he says.

He understands the desire of politicians and others to change the welfare system, but he says many of them don't understand what it is like to be part of the working poor. "I'd like to put them in my shoes for about a month," Hastings says. "One month, and they'd learn it's not as easy as they think it is."

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