CHARLESTON, S.C. -- For many, a $10 or $20 cut in the monthly food budget would be absorbed with little notice.
But for millions of poor Americans who rely on food stamps, reductions that began this month present awful choices: A gallon of milk for the kids instead of two. No fresh broccoli for dinner or snacks for school. Weeks of grits and margarine for breakfast.
And for many, it will mean turning to a food pantry or a soup kitchen by mid-month.
"I don't need a whole lot to eat," said Leon Simmons, 63, who spends more than half of his monthly $832 Social Security income to rent a room in an East Charleston house. "But this month, I know I'm not going to buy any meats."
Mr. Simmons' allotment from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps, has dropped $9. He already spent the $33 he received for November.
The benefits reduction has affected more than 47 million people like Mr. Simmons. It is the largest wholesale cut in the program since Congress passed the first Food Stamps Act in 1964 and touches about 1 in every 7 Americans. From the South's country kitchens to New York City's bodegas, the pain is already being felt.
Christopher Bean, executive director of a New York food pantry operated by a nonprofit organization called Part of the Solution, said about 60 new families had visited the pantry in the past week because their food stamps had been cut. They know they will be out of food well before the month is over.
In 2009, people started getting as much as 13.6 percent more in food stamps as part of the federal economic stimulus package, but that increase has expired. The reduction will save the government about $5 billion next year.
Overall, the nation's food stamps program cost a record $78.4 billion in the 2012 fiscal year, according to the Agriculture Department. Although the amount given to each household -- a figure that can vary widely depending on a complex formula of income and the number of mouths to feed -- has been dropping by small amounts for the past few years, the roster of people seeking assistance grew steadily through the recession.
In the 2010 fiscal year, 40.3 million people were enrolled. Two years later, that number jumped by 15.6 percent. Just more than 45 percent of those getting food stamps are children, according to the Agriculture Department.
Food stamps are likely to be cut more in coming years if Congress finishes the current version of the farm bill, which House and Senate negotiators began tackling this week. The Republican-controlled House has approved cutting as much as $40 billion from the program by making it harder to qualify. The Democratic-controlled Senate is suggesting a $4 billion cut by making administrative changes.
To poor families trying to stretch a couple hundred dollars into a month's worth of groceries, the talk about stimulus packages, farm subsidies and congressional politics means little. For them, it's all about daily survival at the grocery store.
"We'll be on our last $3 at the end of the month," said Rafaela Rivera, 34, a home health aide who earns $10 an hour. Her family of four saw their food stamps reduced by $36, to $420 a month. They pay rent and other expenses using her income and her husband's disability check, and supplement food stamps with bags of fresh vegetables, chicken and other groceries from a food pantry. "It's going to be hard," she said. "Our last week is going to be tight-tight."