As Debate Reopens, Food Stamp Recipients Continue to Squeeze

By:  Sheryl Gay Stolberg

DYERSBURG, Tenn. — As a self-described “true Southern man” — and reluctant recipient of food stamps — Dustin Rigsby, a struggling mechanic, hunts deer, dove and squirrel to help feed his family. He shops for grocery bargains, cooks budget-stretching stews and limits himself to one meal a day.

Tarnisha Adams, who left her job skinning hogs at a slaughterhouse when she became ill with cancer, gets $352 a month in food stamps for herself and three college-age boys. She buys discount meat and canned vegetables, cheaper than fresh. Like Mr. Rigsby, she eats once a day — “if I eat,” she said.

When Congress officially returns to Washington next week, the diets of families like the Rigsbys and Adamses will be caught up in a debate over deficit reduction. Republicans, alarmed by a rise in food-stamp enrollment during the economic downturn, are pushing to scale down the program. No matter what Congress decides, benefits will be cut in November, when a provision in the 2009 stimulus bill expires.

Yet as lawmakers cast the fight in terms of spending, nonpartisan budget analysts and hunger relief advocates warn of a spike in “food insecurity” among Americans who, as Mr. Rigsby said recently, “look like we are fine,” but live on the edge of poverty, skipping meals and rationing food.

Surrounded by corn and soybean farms — including one owned by the local Republican congressman, Representative Stephen Fincher — Dyersburg, about 75 miles north of Memphis, provides an eye-opening view into Washington’s food stamp debate. Mr. Fincher, who was elected in 2010 on a Tea Party wave and collected nearly $3.5 million in farm subsidies from the government from 1999 to 2012, recently voted for a farm bill that eliminated food stamps.

“The role of citizens, of Christianity, of humanity, is to take care of each other, not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country,” Mr. Fincher, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said after his vote in May. In response to a Democrat who invoked the Bible during the food stamp debate in Congress, Mr. Fincher responded with his own biblical phrase. “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Department of Agriculture released a 2012 survey showing that nearly 49 million Americans were living in “food insecure” households — meaning, in the bureaucratic language of the agency, that some family members lacked “consistent access throughout the year to adequate food.” In short, many Americans went hungry. The agency found the figures essentially unchanged since the economic downturn began in 2008, but substantially higher than during the previous decade.

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