The food stamps buy a lot of economical rice-based meals for the family — four adults and a grandson who live with Lewis in Spring Hill, Florida.
Occasionally, when her grocery store is running a deal, Lewis indulges the family with spare ribs or chicken.
The benefit — totaling $800 for four adults — never lasts Lewis and her family a full month.
“When I get to the end, we always run out. I try to go to all the food pantries,” Lewis said.
Food stamp benefits will be trimmed by $5 billion starting Friday, when a temporary bump-up enacted during the recession expires. Millions of families will be affected.
Lewis, 55, is worried because the cuts are coming at a bad time. Among other things, a second grandchild is due in January.
She is also fighting the bank from foreclosing on her home.
And even though she doesn’t smoke, Lewis suffers from emphysema, which prevents her from working.
Lewis attributes the emphysema to a lifetime of bartending in smoke-filled nonprofit social clubs, such as Elks and Moose lodges.
Her adult daughters who live with her aren’t in a position to work — one is a new mom, and another is due to give birth soon.
The low point came this summer, when she didn’t have enough to pay the full electricity bill. Lewis needs power to run her breathing machine to treat her illness. So she pawned her wedding ring for $325.
A few weeks ago, she started getting disability payments for her disease. She promptly used it to get back her ring for $487 before it was sold.
“That was $162 I paid in interest to keep the lights on and put food on the table,” Lewis said.
Enrollment in food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has soared.
Some 47.6 million people, or nearly 15% of the population, get them, according to September federal data. That compares to 26.3 million, or 8.7% of the population, in 2007. The average benefit per person is $133.19 a month.
For families who rely on food stamps, it means a lot of planning and tough choices.
Hugh Sewell, 54, has been on food stamps for two years. He gets the maximum allowed for his family of three — $526 a month. The benefits will likely be cut by $29 to $497, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That would be tough, Sewell says. The first time the family got food stamps, after he lost his job in 2010, they blew through the allotment halfway through the month.
After that, the Sewells started making detailed budgets, meal plans and shopping lists.
“We buy a lot of beans, rice and potatoes,” said Sewell, who lives in Philadelphia. “Towards the end of the month, you’re eating all the box stuff, and a lot more pasta with sauce.”
Last month, Sewell landed a job as an audio technician.
The job paid $12 an hour, a lot less than the $25 he used to make before he was laid off.
Sewell asked his employer to lower his wages to $9 an hour instead.
Why? He did the math and found that $12 an hour was just enough to cause a reduction in his government benefits, and could cost him and his family its Medicaid coverage for health care.
At the same time, the income from $12 an hour would not be enough to pay his bills, including the $900 a month he would have to pay for health insurance for his family.
Sewell is hoping to find a job that pays enough to allow his family to get off government assistance.