Calls raised for Pa. to fill food stamp funding gap

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HARRISBURG -- The farm bill signed into law last month contained significant cuts in food stamps for Pennsylvania -- up to $65 per month for 175,000 households.

Governors in at least two other states have acted to mitigate the cuts; it's not clear yet if that could happen in Pennsylvania.

"We're still analyzing the financial impacts" of the farm bill, said Kait Gillis, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Public Welfare.

Democratic governors in New York and Connecticut announced last week they would dedicate additional energy assistance funds to blunt the impact of the federal cuts.

The cuts represented about 1 percent of the food stamp program nationally, but that fell disproportionately on 15 states -- including Pennsylvania -- that use a formula allowing people receiving even a small amount of heating assistance to receive a larger food stamp benefit.

The farm bill eliminated that so-called "heat-and-eat" provision.

To mitigate the impact of the change, Pennsylvania would have to find about $20 per household in additional home heating aid for those 175,000 households to qualify for the same level of food assistance.

"We would encourage Pennsylvania to follow the lead of other states in the Northeast in finding the funding to mitigate these cuts," said Caryn Long, executive director of Feeding Pennsylvania.

"These cuts are going to put real pressure on our food banks and make it harder to serve those in need."

A number of members of Congress also have called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to delay the cuts, to give state agencies more time to implement them.

"[T]his will allow the Heat and Eat states the necessary time to provide outreach and support for many seniors, children, and individuals living with a disability who will be impacted by this policy change," stated a letter signed by 16 senators and 81 members of Congress, including Sen, Bob Casey, D-Pa.

The cuts amount to about $136 million in lost food aid annually in Pennsylvania, according to a calculation from the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, based on state statistics.

But because of how food stamp benefit levels are calculated, a relatively small amount of additional home heating aid -- about $3.5 million -- would be able to restore those cuts, advocacy groups say.

"That small amount of money enables the state to ... maximize those benefits," explained Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh anti-hunger group.

"That could put $136 million worth of food on people's tables in Pennsylvania," he said.

Kate Giammarise:, 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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