PORTLAND, Ore. — Carly Poe knows $20 might not seem like a lot of money to some folks. A twenty would go pretty fast at a trip to the movies, after all. But for Poe, 33, and her 14-year-old son, $20 is three or four days' worth of meals.
"It's considerable when you think of it that way," she says. "I actually have $20 left for groceries right now."
Poe, a Portland resident, is among the 800,000 Oregonians who rely on food stamps each month to make do. As of Friday, their budgets became even tighter as a stimulus-era bump in funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for food stamps, ran out.
The cut will translate to $11 a month for an individual or $36 for a family of four. All in all, Oregon will see a loss of $84 million in assistance over the next year.
"Ten dollars per person per month adds up really fast," says Patti Whitney-Wise, the executive director of Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. "What are you going to cut out? It might mean the only fruits and vegetables you're able to purchase will no longer be available."
Food banks and pantries are bracing. They know their services, already in high demand since the recession, are going to be spread even thinner.
What's more, deeper cuts may not be far off. Legislators are trying to push through a piece of agriculture and nutrition legislation that usually passes easily. This time around, though, there's deep disagreement over future funding for the food stamp program.
House members have voted to cut the program by $40 billion over the next decade and to sharply reduce eligibility. The Senate version of the bill includes $4 billion in cuts over the same period.
The program and its recipients can't afford that, advocates say.
"For people to understand how this impacts our whole state is important," Whitney-Wise says. "We now serve one in five Oregonians. The recession hit us hard, and most of the jobs coming back are at the low end."
Poe, for her part, is struggling to find work at all, despite having a bachelor's degree in anthropology and sociology. She's a single mother raising a son who fought cancer and is disabled, unable to attend public school.
"We have been making ends meet with SNAP," Poe says. "It's a struggle and a worry every month wondering how we're going to come up with the money."
Poe attends school, trying to get a master's in public health. She also volunteers and works as an unpaid intern.
"You deal with a lot of people who think, 'Oh, you're not working hard enough. You're lazy,'" she says. "We're working really, really hard. . There are a lot of people in tough positions where they're trying to better their lives but they're just not able to make ends meet yet."
Leo Mitchell, a 36-year-old Portlander, has a heart condition that keeps him from working. He gets about $100 a month in food stamp benefits. That will drop to $87. That $13, he says, "is the difference between my power being paid."
At the Oregon Food Bank, "We are already serving as many people as we can," says Jeff Kleen, a policy advocate.
During the last fiscal year, the food bank distributed 1.1 million emergency food boxes. The group is proud of that work, but it's no substitute for SNAP, Kleen says.
On Northeast 72nd Avenue, in the basement of Luther Memorial Lutheran Church, folks shop the aisles of Portland's Northeast Emergency Food Program. More people come at the end of the month as benefits run dry.
Howard Kenyon manages the program, a service offered through the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. He doesn't expect to see demand spike right away, but as the month of November presses on, he imagines people will come looking for extra help.
"It's bad timing," he says. "It's terrible timing, actually."
People are already struggling, the holiday season is particularly rough for many families, and the recent government shutdown has slowed economic growth, he says.
"We're anticipating an increase in people who are on the edge," he says. "Maybe they haven't needed us. But now they will."
Ray Wilburn, a father of six children ages 8 to 16, is among those on the edge. He made his first visit to the pantry and found he had to wait awhile for his turn.
"I don't mind waiting if it feeds my family," said Wilburn, who receives SNAP benefits that vary depending how much work he's getting.
He's not happy about the cuts, but he's not upset either.
"It could be a lot worse," Wilburn says. "We are in hard times now, but I could be getting nothing."
There's also this plain fact: Wilburn doesn't want to be on SNAP. He doubts most people do. "I believe people should help themselves," he says. But sometimes, he says, "It's OK to get help."