What Is Feeding the 2018 Midterms in Northeast Pennsylvania?

Jerry Mizrachi, 73, still keeps an eye on the counter at the deli he once owned in Scranton, PA. Thirty years ago, when he opened the deli, the Israeli immigrant from Jerusalem accepted food stamps at the restaurant from customers on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program. While the 2018 Indicators Report shows that SNAP benefits have increased to serve 17 percent of the population in Lackawanna County, Mizrachi said he is glad his former business stopped accepting the stamps.

With looming provisions to America’s food stamp program just days ahead of the midterms, Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate cannot agree on how to keep millions of low-income Americans fed and working. Democrats want to keep the SNAP program as is, while Republicans are moving to tighten restrictions.

Republicans have proposed increasing the age span of which SNAP recipients must work from 18 to 49, to 18 to 59, including more people who have school-aged children, and limiting states’ abilities to waive the work requirement in areas with high rates of unemployment. Pennsylvania, where 73 percent of those on food stamps are unemployed, is currently one of the states with a waiver – yet the Keystone State’s unemployment rate, at 4.1 percent, is the lowest it’s been since July 2000. In the city of Scranton, PA, scrutiny over the SNAP program and food insecurity tells a more nuanced story.

“There is very much a high need in Scranton,” said Rich Kutz, director of the H & J Weinberg NE PA Regional Food Bank. The food bank serves four counties across Northeast Pennsylvania, including Lackawanna County, and is always receiving new requests from nonprofits to partner up.

The government’s attempt at feeding the most needy Scranton residents is further emphasized by the fact that, in addition to food banks, the USDA has put more effort into helping farmers markets to accept food stamps so everyone can eat healthily, said Kathy Fisher, policy director at the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Hunger Coalition. In Scranton, however, these efforts seem to have gone unappreciated.

Logan Brace, 23, is a ninth generation farmer who dedicates 30-some hours of his workweek to managing his family’s Brace’s Orchard farm stand at the Co-Op Farmer’s Market in Scranton, where revenue is the highest of all his weekly markets. Brace accepted SNAP two years ago and found none of his customers used it. “Anyone using SNAP is not using it at this market,” he said. He, however, accepts the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) vouchers, which account for a third of his business.

Other farmers market vendors have raised the question of where and how Scranton residents are redeeming the benefit of SNAP, highlighting why Republicans are angling for a more disciplined qualification of recipients and stipulated end-use.“People who shouldn’t have it are on it,” said Marion Rosencrance. Its her second year at the Co-Op, where she works on Friday afternoon overseeing the Hoppy’s Produce farm stand, which also accepts WIC but not SNAP.

At Saturday’s South Side Farmer’s Market, run by nonprofit United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania, Chrissy Manuel, revitalization manager, has a table set up among a handful of farm stands. Her title is indicative of her presence at the market, where SNAP is accepted.“The market exists because this area is considered a food desert,” Manuel said. But of the 150-200 people each week, only five transactions will be SNAP recipients.

Meanwhile, Abe’s Deli’s former owner, Jerry Mizrachi, said he always had a difficult time selling product to food stamp customers.“They bought things they shouldn’t,” Mizrachi said. “They asked me for things they weren’t allowed to buy, like cigarettes.” He later referred to the food stamp access cards as “Monopoly money.” He said that the SNAP program could benefit from tougher work requirements. “You don’t have to be aggressive or hard-working,” he said. “But at least have some dignity.”

Yet at a Scranton soup kitchen, Keystone Mission Program & Facility Manager Tommy Hill said Scrantonians are selling food stamps just to get a roof over their heads.“The fact that we only have one shelter in Scranton, St. Anthony’s, they only have one place to stay,” Hill said, indicating the high demand for lodging. “For $100 per week, they’ll sell half of food stamps to get a week off the streets.”

Hunger Coalition’s Fisher advocates for these Scranton residents.“How can people in areas with not enough jobs be subject to a work requirement?” Fisher said. “They aren’t going to pick up and move because they can’t receive SNAP where they are.”

For some SNAP recipients in Scranton, however, stricter work requirements will not be a roadblock to receiving food stamps. Shawn Fischer, 35, a deli clerk at Gerrity’s Supermarket in Scranton, has depended on food stamps his whole life. His social security disability restricts him to working only 20 hours per week. “I’ll work more if I have to,” Fischer said, confident his cerebral palsy won’t interfere with his bi-weekly grocery shopping trips.

Nariman ‘Norman’ Kerimoglu, 27, was a former food stamp recipient when his Turkish family immigrated to the U.S. from Russia back in 2007. After the first four months, both his parents started work at Tyson Foods. They later started a trucking business and most recently opened up a coffee shop, Cafe Sevda, in downtown Scranton. In 2012, the family stopped receiving food stamps. “Everywhere we live, we work,” Kerimoglu said.



Email the Author, Elizabeh Gravier at emg473@nyu.edu