77,300 in Brevard need food stamps

Churches, pantries scramble to meet expected rising need

MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. - 60-year-old David Wilcox worked for nearly 30 years building boats before he was laid off in 2008 just as the country was entering its its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Wilcox ran through the $60,000 in his 401k fund. He lost his home to foreclosure. Wilcox now depends on $200 in monthly food stamp benefits and the House of Hope Ministry at First Baptist Church of Merritt Island, according to Local 6's news partner Florida Today.

"I've been getting by, just getting by," said Wilcox, a volunteer at the same ministry that provides food and other goods to about 1,600 people a week. He is one of 77,300 people in Brevard County receiving food benefits from the federal government — about 14 percent of the county's 540,000 residents.

"I have no money, no retirement. With the food stamps, I get what I need, buying a little thing here or there. I'm just trusting in God to provide my needs," Wilcox said.

Today, Wilcox and millions of other unemployed and working poor Floridians are preparing for long-anticipated cuts — as much as $36 a month for a family of four — to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are formally known. Churches, ministries and food banks are also waiting to see the effects of the cuts.

Michael Hubler, the executive director of the Sharing Center of South Brevard, said regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C., agencies and churches in Brevard will work to meet what's anticipated to be a fresh round of needs.

"We will have to make do with less but expect more people. There's no really way we can know ahead of time, but we just have to continue to pray," Hubler said.

"There are no good solutions. But if it came down to it, I would prefer to get the child fed and lose a few tax dollars," he said.

The cuts come as $11 billion in federal-stimulus funds dedicated to food assistance during the 2008 economic crisis runs out. In Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives is looking to reduce SNAP funding further by $39.5 billion over the next 10 years.

Congressional negotiations continue. But the budget squeeze has moved religious leaders from across Florida and the Southeast — one of the regions hardest hit by the downturn according to groups that monitor poverty — to raise concerns about the potential effect.

"This is a major issue. Our country is not a Third World country, it is an advanced country and we should give help to those who are in need," said Pastor Errol Beckford of Celebration Tabernacle Church in Cocoa.

Beckford, an advocate of helping others find jobs and start businesses to help themselves, sees the cutbacks as a moral failure and one that will do more harm than good.

One Republican solution being offered in the U.S. House: Require adults who can work earn benefits by working 20 hours a week or joining a job training program, according to reports. It would also deny benefits to adults up to age 50 who are not disabled or raising children, a move that could end food stamp assistance for up to 400,000 Floridians, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Policies.

"What we have done in this country is wrong," said U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland II, R-Panama City, last month, "We have failed in introducing the blessing of work to able-bodied people who have the ability, who are mentally, physically, psychologically able to work, and we have robbed them of knowing a better life that they helped create for themselves and their families."

Beckford pointed out that the food banks, food stamps and other assistance programs are often the last resort. Couple that with an unexpected hardship such as a medical emergency, and families could find themselves financially devastated, Beckford added.

"It also troubles me that this is something that keeps coming up. But if you're going to cut benefits, then what are you replacing it with?" Beckford said. "If you're replacing the cutbacks with jobs, then do that. If people can't work, they can't buy food, they lend themselves to criminal activity."

The Food Action and Research Center, an organization that keeps statistics on poverty and federal assistance, reported that the SNAP caseload in Florida increased 130.5 percent since 2008.

There are about 128 food pantries across Brevard County. In 2006, two years before the economic crash there were 51,000 people who received food donations. That number rose to 125,000 in 2010, according to statistics from the Second Harvest Food Bank in Central Florida. The reductions in SNAP will likely have more people struggling to keep food on the table, said Young, the executive director of House of Hope, which has 265 volunteers.

"We've already seen an increase in our clientele, up to 15 to 20 percent," Young said, adding that the ministry relied mostly on private donations to supply its pantry and other operations.

"Demand is increasing and supply is decreasing. Young said. "It's just hard to predict the future."

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