PHILADELPHIA -- Putting food on the table will be a lot harder for millions of Americans starting in March.
Food stamp recipients will each receive about $90 a month less in benefits, on average, as a pandemic hunger relief program comes to an end nationwide three years after Congress approved it.
Every household in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as food stamps are formally known, will see their monthly benefits shrink by at least $95. Some larger families could experience monthly reductions of $250 or more, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
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"It's something that people are going to notice," said Dottie Rosenbaum, director of federal SNAP policy at the center. "It's $3 billion a month that's going to food that's not going to be there anymore."
This is leading food banks and pantries, already stretched thin by increased demand due to the surge in grocery prices, to brace for a new spike in need.
End of the emergency allotments
Congress voted to end the pandemic emergency allotments after the February issuance as part of the government funding package that passed late last year. The legislation also created a permanent summer benefits program to provide funds to the families of some 30 million children to buy groceries in place of school meals during the break.
The cut in food stamps will be felt in the 32 states and the District of Columbia that were still providing the emergency allotments, which increased monthly benefits to the maximum for the household's size or at least $95 a month. Some 18 states already ended the pandemic benefits.
More than 42 million Americans received food stamps as of November, according to the latest federal data. Without the pandemic boost, the average food stamp benefit will come to about $6 per person per day in 2023, instead of about $9, according to the center.
Food stamp recipients in states that already terminated the program are feeling the pinch, said Stacy Taylor, head of policy and partnerships at Propel, a software company that provides an app to check SNAP benefit balances.
Those who live in these states report higher rates of skipping meals, eating less, relying on others for meals and visiting food pantries than their peers in states that continued the emergency allotments, she said, citing Propel's monthly surveys of its more than 5 million users.
At the same time, a majority of its clients in all states say they have less than $25 on hand to cover expenses.
"When the SNAP benefit is cut, where is that cushion going to come from?" Taylor said.
For Pam Ford, the $95 monthly boost has meant that she could buy more milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, crackers and peanut butter for her sons, ages 4 and 1. Once she heard it was ending, she started using her main monthly benefit of $645 to stock up on steaks, ground beef and canned fish for future meals.
The Cleveland resident is already formulating recipes that will stretch out her supplies, such as Mexican dishes that call for beans and rice. She's also planning to serve more breakfast meals for dinner.
"Anything that still has the substance, but it doesn't cost as much as everything else," said Ford, 46, who is unemployed.
The emergency allotments kept 4.2 million people out of poverty in 2021, lowering poverty by nearly 10% and child poverty by 14%, according to an Urban Institute study.
"These SNAP payments have been extraordinarily helpful and helping people afford food during the ups and downs of the pandemic, and especially during the sort of a period of historic inflation we've been experiencing," said Lydia Gottesfeld, managing attorney for the health and independence unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
In addition to the cessation of the emergency allotments, some food stamp recipients could face additional hurdles once the public health emergency ends on May 11. Several other pandemic provisions will terminate at that time, including the suspension of the three-month time limit for certain adults without disabilities and without children who aren't working, the expansion of eligibility to certain college students and additional flexibilities for states to help them manage their workloads.
More people going to food banks
To prepare for the end of the boost, Ford signed up to go to a local food pantry. Anti-hunger groups nationwide are expecting many others to do the same.
"The Coalition Against Hunger has a really helpful website with food, access to food banks. Another resource, which is somewhat underutilized in Pennsylvania, is the WIC program. And that is only for families with small children or pregnant women," Gottesfeld said.
The ending of SNAP benefits is coming at a time when food banks are already grappling with high inflation, which has prompted more people to turn to them and made it more costly for them to provide supplies to those in need. Plus, food banks are seeing fewer donations, forcing them to use their funds to buy groceries.
"We are transitioning from a pandemic crisis to a hunger crisis," said Vince Hall, chief government relations officer at Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries and meal programs.
About three-quarters of food banks reported that the ending of the emergency allotments has driven up demand, according to a Feeding America survey of members taken in January. Many food stamp recipients didn't have a lot of notice in the states that already terminated the boost.
"It was just something that happened suddenly and jarringly to families that are already struggling to afford the basic essentials of life, like rent and gasoline and health care and, of course, food," Hall said.
The Atlanta Community Food Bank saw a 40% spike in demand in December, compared with the same month a year earlier. Between a third and half of that jump was likely due to the state ending the emergency allotments last summer, said Kyle Waide, CEO of the nonprofit, which provides nearly 10 million pounds of food a month to almost 700 community partners, including pantries, senior centers, schools and shelters, in Georgia.
"If you're someone who cannot meet your basic needs with your existing resources, every $10, $20 or $30 matters. It allows you to get a little bit more nutrition for your family," Waide said.
For Tari Aguilar, who lives in a park in Long Beach, California, the end of her $95 emergency allotment means that she will have to go to a food bank to get canned food, vegetables and bread to supplement the roughly $200 in food stamps she receives monthly. The increase allowed her to treat herself to a hot meal at a local fast-food joint once a month.
But it also meant that her benefits would last until the next month, which wasn't the case prior to the pandemic.
"It made things easier," said Aguilar, 52. "There was just no worry at the end of the month."
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"Folks have been getting two snap payments, one in the beginning of the month, and one toward the end of the month." - Lydia Gottesfeld, Managing Attorney, health and independence unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia
But now the extra supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP, benefit that started during the pandemic, is over as of today.
" These snap payments have been extraordinarily helpful and helping people afford food during the ups and downs of the pandemic, and especially during the sort of a period of historic inflation we've been experiencing." - Lydia Gottesfeld, Managing Attorney, health and independence unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia
Lydia Gottesfeld, a Managing Attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia says the average amount of snap that folks are going to be losing is $92 per person. And she says to make sure you are maximizing the SNAP funding you do get.
"That means making sure that their incomes up to date, especially if it's decreased, that they have up to date, housing expenses, and that if they're paying for child care or regular medical expenses, those are also been up to date with the county Assistance Office." - Lydia Gottesfeld, Managing Attorney, health and independence unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia
And don't forget to utilize other resources that are out there.
"The Coalition Against Hunger has a really helpful website with food, access to food banks. Another resource, which is somewhat underutilized in Pennsylvania is the WIC program. And that is only for families with small children or pregnant women." - Lydia Gottesfeld, Managing Attorney, health and independence unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia
If you have built up excess snap on your card, that is not going away. And now, local food pantries are preparing to serve more people.
"People aren't getting a break right now and they come to the food bank to get that relief. We've seen increases over the past several months with high grocery costs, high gas costs, high heating and electric bills. Costs are high across the board and the people who are most vulnerable in our community are really struggling to make ends meet with these costs." - Kim Turner, Communication Director the food bank of Delaware
"We are definitely already expecting to see more people pre pandemic. We were serving around 90,000 people a week during Co. You know the kind of the height of of Covid. We were serving around 135,000 people per week, and that number is just going to continue to significantly grow." - Chelsea Short
Director of Communications and Marketing, Philabundance
But the food banks... have also been stretched thin.
"Just as people are feeling the pinch at the grocery store, we also feel that same pinch. A truck of poultry for us used to be like $60,000. It's about 120,000 at this point" - Chelsea Short
Director of Communications and Marketing, Philabundance
And they say, don't forget:
"it's okay to need help. We all need help from time to time. And that's what we are here for." -Chelsea Short, Director of Communications and Marketing, Philabundance