YOUNGSTOWN -- A 5 percent national cutback in the food-stamp program that takes effect Friday will inflict hardship on beneficiaries and increase the burden on local food pantries, which supply free food to needy people, local officials say.

YOUNGSTOWN -- A 5 percent national cutback in the food-stamp program that takes effect Friday will inflict hardship on beneficiaries and increase the burden on local food pantries, which supply free food to needy people, local officials say.

This reduction is being accompanied by a new state requirement that some 134,000 able-bodied Ohio food-stamp recipients between age 18 and 50, who aren't pregnant and don't have minor children, must work or attend job training at least 20 hours a week, or risk losing their food stamps after Jan. 1.

More than 1.8 million Ohioans are beneficiaries of the food-stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which has some 47 million beneficiaries nationally.

"It's going to be a little more difficult for them to put food on their table" beginning next month, Robert E. Bush Jr., Mahoning County Job and Family Services director, said of SNAP recipients. "I would anticipate some folks going to food pantries that haven't gone in the past."

"This food-stamp cut is probably going to drive some additional people to pantries," said Michael Iberis, executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Mahoning Valley in Youngstown, which supplies food to 153 soup kitchens and food pantries in Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull counties.

Many SNAP beneficiaries already use the pantries, which typically distribute about a three-day supply of food monthly to needy people, Iberis said.

"The number of people coming to pantries and [soup] kitchens already is at record numbers. They're seeing [more than] 15,000 people a week," in the tri-county area, Iberis said. "It's getting closer to 16,000 people a week, which means that that's the most we've ever seen, probably since the Great Depression" of the 1930s, he added.

Second Harvest distributes 9 million pounds of food annually in the tri-county area, which is double the amount it distributed eight years ago, he said.

"There is a ripple effect" from the SNAP cutback, Iberis said. "If there's less money coming into the Valley [in food stamps], then obviously that trickles down to the merchant. It trickles down to the suppliers" of food, he said.

"Those purchases primarily stay local, so, yes, it's going to impact our grocers," Bush said, referring to grocery stores, where SNAP recipients spend their food allotments.

SNAP beneficiaries number 17,792 in Columbiana County, 46,543 in Mahoning County and 33,739 in Trumbull County, according to Ohio Department of Job and Family Services figures for July, which are the most recent available.

SNAP got a $45.2 billion boost beginning in 2009 from the anti-recession federal stimulus program, which increased the monthly benefit from $588 to $668 for the average family of four. Friday's expiration of that increase will cut that to $632 a month.

The benefits vary based on food costs, inflation and income.

"They would have to make a choice on how to spend. Is it utilities or food for my child or food for myself?" John Gargano, Trumbull County Job and Family Services director, said of the choices SNAP recipients will be making after Friday.

The goal of the state requirement that able-bodied SNAP recipients work or get job training is to help the recipients, said Ben Johnson, an ODJFS spokesman.

"Our intent is to provide both a monetary benefit and job training or work experience to every Ohioan who needs them. It is not our intent to reduce the caseload," Johnson said.

The work requirement is being imposed in 72 Ohio counties, including Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties, but not in 16 other counties where the economic recovery has been slower, Johnson said.

ODJFS will work with county JFS departments to increase efforts to help able-bodied food-stamp recipients find work, Johnson said.

The number of SNAP participants subject to the work requirement is 1,102 in Columbiana County, 4,711 in Mahoning County and 2,054 in Trumbull County.

"I don't think we have enough jobs for those who want to work to keep them on the [food-stamp] program," he added.

He said, however, transportation to available job and training sites won't be a major problem in Mahoning County, where the Western Reserve Transit Authority has a well-developed bus-route network. "We can provide transportation passes and pick up some of that cost to get them to job sites," Bush said.

Gargano said his county is working to meet additional transportation needs, but he added it would be difficult for Trumbull County JFS to handle a large increase in demand for JFS client transportation. There, he said, JFS uses several vendors to provide van and taxi transportation to its clients for medical and work purposes.

2013 Vindicator (Youngstown, Ohio)

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