NAPLES — A last-minute extension of federal farm programs means Floridians on food stamps won't experience cuts to their benefits.
But that stability may not last long.
Program advocates said while a deal to avert the so-called "dairy cliff" maintains food-aid dollars at current levels until the end of September, the federal food program still could be in jeopardy as congressional leaders strive to balance the budget.
"It's been really difficult because (Congress) keeps kicking the can down the road," said Al Brislain, executive director of the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida in Fort Myers.
A deal approved earlier this month to prevent the country from going over the fiscal cliff also extended the 2008 farm bill through September.
The deal most notably kept milk prices from doubling through government price control and guarantees that would have taken effect — the dairy cliff. It also halted comprehensive packages in both the House of Representatives and Senate calling for cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Proposals would have cut $4.5 billion to $16 billion from the food stamp program, analysts said.
While budget cuts would have little direct effect on the Harry Chapin Food Bank organization, Brislain said, its clients would be directly affected.
"Our concern is that we serve a lot of working poor that are getting SNAP benefits," he said. "Our biggest concern is the impact on the clients."
More than 2.5 million Florida families received Nutrition Assistance benefits equal to more than $5.3 billion in fiscal 2011-12. That was up — both in the number of families receiving benefits and the monetary value — from the previous two fiscal years, according to the Department of Children and Families, which administers the program in Florida.
Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the department, said while staff is following what's happening in Washington, officials can't speculate on what will happen in the future.
"We have never, ever gotten to a point where the program is in jeopardy," she said.
So far, she said, it's business as usual for Floridians receiving benefits.
Meanwhile, advocacy agencies like Florida Impact are closely following what's happening to ensure cuts don't happen.
"We don't think there should be any cuts," said Debra Susie, executive director of Florida Impact, a Tallahassee-based anti-hunger organization. "The thing is, if we have to balance the budget, these would be the last areas we would go to balance the budget."
Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center, said more than 230,000 people would lose SNAP benefits in Florida in 2013 — more than 3 million nationwide — under an April 2011 House proposal.
"All of the cuts affect people," she said.
Vollinger said she's hopeful that a new Congress means a new attitude toward food-aid programs, but she's also well aware that congressional leaders will look for places to trim expenses in the coming months.
"We believe this is a fresh Congress, that should be making a fresh start and not working on things with nutrition until next year," she said. "But the process and timing is very much unknown, other than what is known which takes us through Sept. 30. But how quickly they'll move ... we don't know."
Congress is facing pressure to cut spending, so the rise in Nutrition Assistance program costs is a sore point for many lawmakers. High jobless rates and expanded eligibility pushed the cost of SNAP to $76 billion in 2011, double what it was in 2008.
Vollinger said despite the need for cuts to the federal budget, organizations like hers will continue to push for the program to maintain its current funding levels.
"People can get lost in the zeros. The program can sound like a large spending program," she said. "But this will help real people with a real food budget."