MANATEE -- Manatee County agencies that feed the needy are bracing for an onslaught as federal cuts to the food stamp program took effect Friday.
An estimated 48,000 Manatee County residents are among more than 47 million Americans who receive food stamps, whose benefits will drop because emergency payments from the federal government to stimulate the economy have expired.
That decrease works out to about $36 a month for a family of four.
"We have already seen an increase in the number of emergency food baskets we get requests for," said Kristen Theisen, vice president of development for the Food Bank of Manatee, operated by Meals on Wheels Plus.
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Although the food bank does not give to individuals, it does supply about 100 affiliated food banks, and already more food is being requested.
"We've just overcome our slow summer season and are heading into the holidays, when people tend to give a lot," Theisen said. "We're just hopeful people will be giving at the holiday season, and we can stock the food we need to."
This could be just the first step in food allowance cuts. Congress is debating how to fund what is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, with Republicans seeking sharp reductions in the rapidly growing program.
The current emergency benefit dates from 2009 when the federal government launched its stimulus efforts to revive an economy smashed by the fiscal crisis that threatened to destabilize banks and stock markets and bring major industries to a crashing halt.
The Food Bank of Manatee, through all its affiliates, easily serves upwards of 50,000 people in Manatee County.
"Last year was our biggest year of food distribution, we did 3.7 million pounds of food, and this year, we're already approaching 4 million pounds," Theisen said. "We expect to surpass that."
Theisen hopes a "Stuff the Bus" donation event planned in conjunction with the Manatee County School District will help bolster food supplies. The event is slated for Nov. 23-24 at all the county's Publix stores.
School officials worry about the effect on students whose families rely on food stamps.
"Our families hang on by a shoestring already, and that just frays the shoestring," said Deborah Bailey, the homeless education coordinator for the Manatee County School District. "We imagine there are more families that will be requesting food assistance" and depending upon food pantries more heavily, Bailey said.
Her view was seconded by Adell Erozer, executive director of Turning Points, a nonprofit that operates the Galvano One Stop Center for the needy in Bradenton.
"I'm sure we'll be seeing more people needing food," Erozer said.
Asked what the solution might be, she had a simple answer: "Don't cut the food stamps."
"It's difficult to cut food stamps when we're still in such a slow economy," she added. "We have so many people trying to get work, and they don't have the money to spend on food. There's not enough resources in families right now, and its mainly families we see coming in for help."
-- This report includes material from the Los Angeles Times.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.