EUGENE, Ore. — Casey Beason, her boyfriend and 2-year-old daughter were facing an interminable Thanksgiving weekend in their cracker-box apartment on Roosevelt Boulevard while they waited for their Oregon Trail food stamp card to recharge.
Congress let a recession years' food stamp boost expire in November, meaning less money to spend this month for every food stamp recipient in the nation.
In Oregon, it means $84 million less spent on food over the coming year, according to state estimates.
In the Beason's household?— which consists of Beason, 24, her boyfriend Sean Brenton, 29, and their daughter, 2-year-old Journey — it means the equivalent of $30 less for food per month. And it means missing meals.
In October, Beason had $362 for food; this month, it's down to $332. The allotment, which usually lasts a half a month, lasted a few days less in November, Beason said.
The grocery sacks from her once-a-month shopping trip to WinCo were a little lighter.
"I usually get two bags of lunch meat, and now I can only get one," she said. "I usually get three boxes of juice for (Journey) to last the whole month, and now I can only get one.
"That $30 does make a huge difference," she said.
The federal food stamp program — formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — became a football in Congress's ongoing civil war in the past year. Lawmakers let the recession-time boost expire, which will mean the government spends $5 billion less on food stamps in 2014.
In September, House Republicans voted to cut an additional $40 billion from the food stamp budget, with members saying the program was growing too much and leading too many poor people into depending on the government instead of working.
Opponents of the cuts argued that the recession isn't over for a lot of working people, and about two-thirds of food stamp recipients are elderly, disabled or children — so they wouldn't be expected to work.
In Lane County, 82,000 residents receive food stamps, according to FOOD for Lane County. The program touches one in four households locally.
As a result of November's cuts, people are turning up earlier and hungrier to some of the 30 food pantries that FOOD for Lane County serves, pantry managers say.
This week, Lane Community College students set up an on-campus food pantry to help students who get food stamps — estimated at about one-fifth of the student body — eat until their Oregon Trail food stamp cards are recharged.
In Springfield on Wednesday, recipients seeking food boxes to get through the month were lining up in 30—degree weather outside the wrought-iron gates at Catholic Community Services at 6:30 a.m. When the gates opened at 8 a.m., staff members handed out food box tickets, redeemable at 11 a.m., to a crowd filling the walkway.
William Herron was second in line. Herron and his wife, Debra, a couple in their late 50s, had been out of food stamps since mid-November. Their usual allotment of $367 a month had dropped to $341.
Debra Herron has diabetes and tries to control her blood sugar with diet, eating things such as lean protein and fresh vegetables, she said. The food stamps are generally used up before the month ends.
"We usually have food the first two weeks," Debra Herron said. "The second two weeks we don't, so that $26 really counted. It really tore us up.
"I tried to stretch even better than I normally do, but truthfully, I'm (already) so tight with my money, I squeak when I walk."
William Herron is a small-engine mechanic who fixes lawmowers, chain saws and leaf blowers — a job that allows him to work eight months of the year and starve for four, he used to joke.
Now it isn't a joke.
He's had a bout with cancer and, in addition to diabetes, she has emphysema and back problems, the couple said. They don't have a car so they rely on public transportation or walking. Their finances are in disarray.
Potatoes are what the Herrons have had to eat for the 1Â1/2; weeks since their food stamps petered out, the couple said.
They ate fried potato sandwiches while the bread lasted. After that, he would boil one batch of potatoes and then make "gravy" by rendering another batch down and dosing it with spices.
"You put two forks of flour into hot water, throw it in there and boom, gravy," he said.
Trouble is, Debra's blood sugar measurements are cresting at 180, when she's supposed to keep them under 120 to avoid a host of serious maladies.
"Stress is also involved in that," she said. "It messes with your numbers, too, and we just got an eviction notice because we can't afford our rent this month. We have to be out four days after Christmas."
The Herrons said they'd lived in their rental house for 15 years.
"We don't know what we're going to do," Debra Herron said. "Because we're a cancer family, we don't have good credit. It's in the toilet."
The couple has two grown children, but they're strapped, too, he said. "There's no way we would have them help us. We have to figure it out ourselves," she said.
On Wednesday, the Herrons got a food box filled with: two cans of refried beans, a can of kidney beans, a can of spaghetti sauce, a can of fruit cocktail in heavy syrup, whole-wheat spaghetti, rolled oats, almond butter, Goldfish crackers, potato flakes, refried bean flakes, a package of gravy, two waxed boxes of mushroom soup, a sack of frozen government—issue green beans — and, because they were among the first 40 households to get a box at the Springfield pantry, a turkey.
Catholic Community Service handed out a total 330 food boxes Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, at its two pantries, in Springfield and Eugene.
Debra Herron said she can stretch a food box over three or four days.
At Casey Beason's household in Eugene, meanwhile, getting food is a daily ordeal.
At the start of the month, when her family's Oregon Trail food stamp card is loaded, she rides the bus to WinCo and spends about $290.
"They do the bulk stuff and that's what I look for — cheap prices, big amounts."
Beason calls a taxi to bring it all home.
Food means a lot to her family, she said. Up until a year ago January, the family had no home of its own and no ability to cook. They moved from a family member's house to the Eugene Mission and finally to Sheltercare, which led to their apartment.
Stable for months in the apartment, they are one of Sheltercare's success stories.
Beason said she tries to reserve $30 or more on her Oregon Trail card to buy fresh milk as the month goes on — or Gatorade should Journey get sick and need it for hydration.
Both parents, who have anxiety disorders, get Social Security payments, also at the first of the month. It's not much money to raise a child on, Casey Beason said, with diapers and all the other things Journey needs.
Casey Beason gets a food box in the middle of the month when her WinCo haul is gone.
Getting a food box takes three people: one to stay with Journey, one to ride the family's bicycle-and-trailer to the St. Vincent de Paul Service Station on Highway 99, and one to guard the bike — so it doesn't get stripped — while the other stands in the food box line.
Brenton's uncle, Jim Brenton, 53, who still is homeless, will help the family by guarding the bike. His food stamps run out even more quickly. "I had $56," he said, "and now it's $22."
"I watch him from the beginning of the month until now," Casey Beason said this week, "and he's like 'I'm so hungry.'"
The couple also gets hungry, sometimes, but Beason said she does everything she can to shield Journey.
"I could choose to go to The Diner (soup kitchen) if I wanted to," she said, "but I don't like to put Journey into the middle of that (massive homelessness). She eats before we eat, if we have no food. She's the No. 1 in everything. It doesn't matter what it is. If we had one last bit of hot water, she would get it."
Happy surprise: Beason discovered that her monthly Social Security payment was deposited in her account days early, likely because the holiday weekend landed at the end of the month.
"I said, 'Oh, thank you lord. I was so hungry that day."