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Mayor announces extra food stamp money in face of cuts

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced Saturday an additional $10,000 in funding for a program designed to stretch food stamp benefits at farmers' markets.

The additional funding comes as families will begin seeing their benefits cut this month. Food stamp funding took a hit with the lapse of a provision in the 2009 stimulus act that pumped money into the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.

"These families that rely on these dollars every single day, especially as it gets down to the end of the month, will have almost 40 less dollars," the mayor said, referring to the benefit reduction a family of four can expect. "And if you're living from check to check, that $40 makes a heck of a difference."

The mayor said the city raised additional money from the Kaiser Family and Abell foundations to fund its "bonus bucks" program, which gives food stamp recipients up to $10 extra a week if they use their EBT (electronic benefits transfer) cards at city farmers' markets.

The program started when farmers' markets in Baltimore began accepting food stamps last year. It was designed as an incentive to draw poor families to the markets, according to Holly Freishtat, the city's food policy chief. The $5,000 in funding for the program this year has already been exhausted.

Rawlings-Blake, speaking at a North Avenue grocery store, said she was taking action to help the 190,000 food stamp recipients in Baltimore as they prepare for Thanksgiving, rather than waiting for aid from Congress.

"For the past several years this temporary increase provided much-needed relief to families in need as our country struggled to recover from the great recession," she said. "Given the partisan gridlock in Washington, it's anybody's guess as to whether Congress will deliver for Baltimore's families who rely on every cent of these benefits to put food on their tables."

Molly McCloskey, the Maryland director of nonprofit group No Kid Hungry, called the cuts "drastic." Families face benefit cuts of about 5 percent, according to estimates provided by the nonprofit.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided additional money for food stamps, and lawmakers had hoped inflation-adjusted increases in benefits each year would make up for the eventual draw-down in funding so that recipients wouldn't see cuts, according to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, a Washington think tank.

But a combination lower-than-forecast inflation and a decision by Congress to divert the funding to pay for other programs led to the cuts that start this month.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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