Anilia Cantave made sure she got to the Harvest Food Pantry early on a Saturday to pick up cereal, cooking oil, rice, and canned beans. She works as a nurse’s aide but rising food prices have hurt her budget. Cantave now gets a quarter of her family’s groceries from food banks such as Harvest, on Putnam Ave.

She is part of a growing group in Cambridge — 60 people came to Harvest that day. Like her, many are working women trying to feed their families on tight budgets. The Cantaves are not desperately poor — she and her husband have a house and own an SUV — but they also have two daughters, 15 and 22, and support her 84-year old mother. Cantave started coming to Harvest in 2009 when her husband, a taxi driver, lost his job. But even though he found work months ago, the family still shops at Cambridge food pantries every week.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find affordable food. Things that used to be 99 cents are now $1.50, $2,” Cantave said as her younger daughter, Anisha, loaded six or seven grocery bags into the trunk.

Many working Cambridge families such as the Cantaves struggle to pay their grocery bills, said Bill Hsu, one of Harvest’s head volunteers. Hsu has worked with the pantry for six years and keeps track of how many people show up every month. He estimates that the number almost doubled during the recession.

Other Cambridge pantries and food programs, which depend on charitable donations and government support, confirm that they have been much busier over the past three years. Emma Watkins, director of the Cambridge Senior Center, said the pantry there serves 100 to 125 more seniors per week than it did before the recession. The Cambridge Summer Food Program, a city initiative that feeds children during their school vacation, reported that it is served twice as many meals last summer as in 2010.

As demand increases, Hsu said, getting food has become more difficult for Harvest: “Funding is less, the cost of food has gone up and [consequently] we get less selection.” The Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee, an anti-poverty agency that coordinates a network of a dozen local food pantries, agreed food can be scarce. Tina Alu, its associate director, said “there are times when our shelves are close to bare, especially in the winter when fresh produce is harder to find.”

“The recession might be over,” said Stacy Wong, a spokeswoman for the Greater Boston Food Bank, “but it doesn’t feel that way for a lot of people,” especially when they have to choose between buying groceries and paying for household expenses such as clothing, gas and medicine. The food bank, a charity group, gives food to more than 500 pantries, soup kitchens and hunger-relief organizations in nine Eastern Massachusetts counties, including Harvest and the CEOC’s network. A report last year by the food bank concluded that it serves approximately 8 percent of residents in the greater Boston area, a 23 percent increase since 2005. Wong expects that figure to keep going up.

Trouble ahead?

But an act of Congress — the Fiscal Year 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Bill — might make things even harder for the food bank, Cambridge food pantries and low-income families such as the Cantaves. On June 16, the U.S. House of Representatives cut the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s spending next year by $2.7 billion, a 14 percent reduction.

Three important national food assistance programs are on the chopping block: The Emergency Food Assistance Program is losing a quarter of its $246.5 million budget; the Commodity Supplemental Food Program will drop 151,000 people, mainly low-income seniors, according to Feeding America, a national hunger-relief charity; and Women, Infants, Children, which serves 9 million Americans, faces a cut of $685.7 million only a year after Congress slashed its budget by $504 million.

Kathy Mitchell is the director of Cambridge’s Summer Food Program, which relies heavily on federal funding. Between Aug. 1-5, Mitchell said, the program distributed 2,700 breakfasts, 3,300 lunches and 475 snacks at five city parks. Many of the kids are regulars, since in the summertime their parents can’t afford to make up for the cereal, sandwiches and salads schools provide during the academic year. An August 2010 study by the Food Research and Action Center, a national anti-hunger group, found that 30.7 percent of families with children in Massachusetts’s 8th Congressional District, which includes Cambridge, had trouble finding enough food in the past year (the national average is 23.4 percent).

Even so, Mitchell said the Summer Food Program faces a 56 percent budget cut for next year. That would mean laying off half her staff and giving away far less food than the program did this past summer.

Cambridge’s children aren’t the only ones at risk. The Cambridge Senior Center’s pantry in Central Square serves 200 senior citizens a week, like Harvest giving out canned and dry goods. It also distributes meat and dairy products, which are harder to find. The seniors who visit the center are usually retired, many with health problems and some supporting grandchildren, and since they tend to live on fixed incomes, the increasing cost of food has been especially devastating. Watkins, the center’s director, hadn’t yet heard of the legislation moving through Congress but expressed shock when she learned of its details: “I can’t imagine why this particularly vulnerable population is where the cuts are being made.”

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, said food aid has been cut to “below pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels” while ensuring federal agencies have necessary resources, but Cambridge food charities call that contradictory, since food needs have in many cases doubled since before the recession. (Photo: Bruce Tuten)

Defending the bill on the House floor, Agriculture Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, said, “We have taken spending … to below pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels while ensuring [federal agencies] are provided the necessary resources to fulfill their duties. We have worked to root out waste and duplication.”

But Cambridge residents involved with pantries question the wisdom of reducing food aid to pre-recession levels. Even now, there is not always enough food to go around. To ensure every shopper gets at least a little, some pantries have limited clients to monthly visits. Others require proof of Cambridge residency. Many report crowds arriving hours before their doors open, and a few say there have been confrontations over cutting in line. Cantave, the Haitian immigrant, said she has left food pantries empty-handed many times in the past. And Alu points out that private donations won’t be able to replace federal funds: Charities are struggling too, and the CEOC has seen a worrying drop in donations from them.

Ross Fraser of Feeding America called the House’s cuts “pocket change, petty cash that will make no significant difference [to the federal budget deficit] but will significantly hurt the hungry … These programs work. They keep people from being undernourished and starving. Any attempt to muck with them is inhumane.”

Watkins believes many Americans don’t realize how much their hardworking friends and neighbors depend on pantries. She said some of the senior center’s clients are embarrassed to admit they get free food.

Alu agrees there are widespread misconceptions about who gets their food from pantries:  “People think these folks don’t want to work … that they are lazy. But they’re often working three jobs, part-time, and trying to raise a family. They used to shop at Shaw’s or Market Basket and come to the pantries when their paychecks ran out at the end of the month; now, they come to us for most of the month and spend their leftover money at supermarkets” when they have used up all their pantry visits, with many Cambridge food charity recipients heading out of town to stretch their funds.

If federal spending cuts go through and the economy doesn’t improve, Alu said, the CEOC and other pantries might not be able to stay open. In that case, what will low-income families in Cambridge do for food?

“I don’t know,” she replied.

(Graphic: Nick Nehamas)