It was sausage and mashed potato night at the Matt Urban Hope Center on Friday, and dining room manager Tasha Moore didn’t have a second entree to offer.
There were a few empty seats at the tables. The back section of the East Side community center’s dining room was closed. The servers – men and women there to satisfy work requirements of public assistance and build up work experience – were preparing for diners.
Moore likes to offer a choice for people who come in for a free hot meal provided by Friends of Night People, but she wasn’t particularly worried. It was the first of the month, and she expected it would be a slow night.
Come back at the end of the month, when people’s monthly allotment of food stamps runs out, and it’s a different scene. Children ask for plates of leftovers to take home. People turn to the food pantry.
“We have whole families that come in here to eat,” Moore said. “Families with four kids.”
Community kitchens like the Urban Diner at the Hope Center in the old Legion hall on Paderewski Drive are used to the rhythms of food stamps. Their numbers swell as the food assistance runs out and cupboards go empty.
“By the 30th or the 31st, it’s gone,” said Joyelle Tedeschi, the center’s director. Last month, the Hope Center served about 130 meals on the first of the month. In the last few nights of the month, the number of meals served was close to 200.
That’s before the economic stimulus funding that has boosted the food stamp program since 2009 ran out Friday, cutting benefits for most recipients by about 5 percent. Local soup kitchens and food pantries are preparing to see more people as federal lawmakers haggle over additional cuts and the future of the food stamp program.
“Some people just aren’t getting enough to eat,” said Don Luce, community relations director at Community Missions of the Niagara Frontier. “It’s a terrible situation for the very poor.”
Debate over how much the federal government should cut the food stamp program has held up the federal farm bill for months, with Democrats in the Senate proposing to cut $4 billion over 10 years, and Republicans in the House seeking to cut $39 billion over a decade.
The uncertainty is unsettling for people like Tiara Clasablanca. She carefully plans out every dollar she receives in food stamps, buying meat in large packages at Super Walmart and divvying up the portions to last through the month. She saves a few dollars to the end of the month in case of emergencies but said the help is tight with a 5-year- old and a 19-month-old at home. She expects to feel the difference when her food stamp allotment drops about $16 this month.
Clasablanca has a plan to get off food stamps. She works a part-time concessions job and has lined up a second. She attends classes at Bryant & Stratton and plans to be a medical administrative assistant. But for now, she counts on food stamps and meals at the Hope Center to get her through the month.
“It helps when you have kids,” Clasablanca said. “They’re always hungry.”
How big the food stamp program will remain in the future is unclear, but one thing is certain: Local churches, community centers and soup kitchens will continue to fill the gap, one spoonful of mashed potatoes at a time.
Local soup kitchens and food pantries are preparing to see more people.