The perfect storm? Reducing benefits for food, inflation still raging and a food bank surge
Food benefits rose before the pandemic, but inflation has driven up food prices, too. Food banks are trying to prepare
These are all true: The end of higher benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a drop from what low-income families have recently received to help pay for food. Still, SNAP benefits are more robust than pre-pandemic. And inflation continues to rage.
When COVID-19 emergency declarations ended, so did extra food benefits for households that qualify for SNAP (formerly food stamps). As of March 1, they’re gone, prompting fears that with high food prices due to inflation, local food banks will see a surge they may not be able to handle.
Those worried about the impact on families consider it the perfect storm: Less money for food, high inflation, the potential for a food bank surge and fewer donations to meet those needs.
Others object to the notion that families will suffer. And they worry about whether people who use SNAP are getting proper nutrition, especially given the nation’s obesity epidemic.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Angela Rachidi, a poverty scholar, and Thomas O’Rourke, a research assistant, recently wrote on the institute’s blog that the government is stopping its “extra benefits.” But they said that now that the change has occurred, “SNAP benefits remain almost 50% higher today than they were before the pandemic due to inflation adjustments and permanent benefit increases. Rather than cutting benefits, SNAP benefits remain at historically high levels.”
There’s no question, though, that families will have less in benefits starting in March than most had in February. Some states ended extra benefits early, but the rest expired as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023 — the omnibus bill.
Some questions are yet to be answered: Will families that rely on SNAP be cutting out extras or basics? And will food banks see a surge?
SNAP allocations have been based on the Thrifty Food Plan — which was adjusted significantly for the first time in decades in 2022, providing a 23% increase. Beneficiaries also received a 2023 cost of living adjustment increase of 12%.
Advocates have said for years that the benefits prior to the adjustment — which they deemed long overdue — were inadequate to meet nutritional needs. Rachidi and O’Rourke wrote that SNAP households “actually spent slightly more than non-SNAP households per month on food to be eaten at home in 2021,” controlling for household size. “This was before the permanent benefit increases and despite the fact that non-SNAP households have significantly higher incomes than SNAP households do.”
During the pandemic, Congress opted to provide all households eligible for the program with the maximum benefit based on household side. Normally, it’s on an income-driven sliding scale. That maximum amount, as Rachidi and O’Rourke point out, normally goes solely to no-income households.
Additionally, President Joe Biden’s administration increased the maximum benefit by $95 as a pandemic-crisis boost. That, along with the congressionally-granted benefit, just ended.
“States are not allowed to issue (emergency authorizations) for benefit month March 2023, or later, under any circumstance,” officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service explained in a January memorandum to all SNAP state agencies, the notice signed by SNAP’s acting associate administrator, Timothy English.
Their analysis suggests to Rachidi and O’Rourke that states that ended their emergency authorizations earlier — including Florida, Montana and Nebraska — have not had a high rise in food insecurity.
Those who operate food pantries are still worried, though — and not just about a predicted influx in need, but about a number of factors that put food pressure on communities.
As Glenn Bailey, executive director of the Salt Lake area Crossroads Urban Center, explained by email: “We are expecting to be busier. We have already experienced a surge at the end of last year. Our Westside Pantry was almost 200% busier in 2022 than 2021. We have been very busy downtown, too, and our main problem right now is getting enough food donations to keep up. With the end of enhanced SNAP, we expect even more people will need our services.”
One challenge for food banks, several of their representatives told the Deseret News, is that high inflation has reduced the volume of donations they receive. People are spending more on their own household food and other expenses and that may pinch what gets donated to emergency pantries.
Bailey said it’s definitely impacting families that benefited from the more robust economic help available in the pandemic. “During the pandemic, we were serving a lot of homeless people, many of whom were unsheltered. We are still serving those people, but the families that were getting (monthly) child tax credits, stimulus payments, special food distributions, rental assistance and enhanced benefits during the pandemic have now come back. High food costs, rents and gasoline prices are all hurting people,” he said.
He noted, too, that there are fewer food pantries. For example, the Utah Community Action Program “is now completely out of the food pantry business. This has had an impact on us as well.”
Food secure or insecure?
The Department of Agriculture’s annual food security report says in 2021, 89.8% of U.S. households were food secure. The other 10.2% (13.5 million households, not individuals) were “food insecure,” meaning they have low or very low food security.
Food security in the report includes households that receive benefits from the SNAP program and thus had help to purchase food.
“The prevalence of food insecurity is determined by many factors, including household circumstances, the economy, and federal, state and local policies,” the report says. The 3.8% with very low food security isn’t much different than in previous years, including pre-pandemic 2019.
In the 274,000 households with very low food security in 2021, children and adults may have had periods of not having enough to eat. But that wasn’t much different than the previous few years, either.
What happened in 2022 won’t be reported until next September.
Nutritious or just filling?
Rachidi’s more worried about how people eat than the potential that they won’t eat because of the cutbacks, she told the Deseret News. “The elephant in the room is that obesity and diet-related disease is a much bigger problem in the U.S. than hunger. The obesity rate in the U.S. is 10 times the rate of ‘very low food security’ — the USDA’s proxy for hunger,” she said.
Because the SNAP program doesn’t say what kind of food can be purchased with the benefits, she said that “SNAP contributes to the problem of obesity and the benefit increases during the pandemic likely made things worse. Policymakers have been unwilling to seriously address this problem within SNAP.”
In February, Rachidi asked in a blog post for AEIdeas, “Why does the USDA want nutrition standards in school lunches but not SNAP?” She thinks it’s important to have nutrition standards when the government is picking up the tab.
She told the Deseret News the emergency SNAP benefits “served a purpose” early in the pandemic, but have “long outlived their original purpose.” She’s been studying the health outcomes for SNAP recipients and will have a new report out soon, she said, but noted: “It is stark.”
Bailey countered that “generally, anything that creates barriers for people to participate in SNAP is not a positive development. SNAP lets people go to the store and buy the food they need, which is better than coming to Crossroads to get what we have — which might not be much.”
Gina Cornia doesn’t run a food pantry. The organization she directs, Utahns Against Hunger, uses advocacy, outreach and education to increase access to food in the Beehive State, including keeping tabs on emergency food trends,
“When food prices started going up, we heard from pantries across the state that there was significant increase in need,” she said, noting one had a 100% increase in the number of families it served.
In Utah, at least, pantries have served more families with kids, larger families and “a lot more” older adults seeking help recently, she said.
Utah, however, has not seen a spike in the number of SNAP households, which has been roughly steady since the pandemic began, with a little spike, then a decrease. Cornia said pandemic relief money likely tamped down the need.
“People who are eligible have not rushed to get on SNAP with food prices increasing. There has been a spike at food pantries.”
Cornia calls putting nutrition restrictions on SNAP a bad idea. “How would you do that?” she asks, noting it’s “strictly prohibited” by the U.S. Food and Nutrition Services and such a change would have to be part of the Farm Bill. But she suspects with “all the emphasis on ‘food as medicine,’ there will be a big push we would never support.”
She added, “We want people to have the choice to eat the kind of foods they want to eat. Incentives are better” than telling people they can’t ever buy cake, she said. And since healthy food is often more expensive, it would likely mean a need to increase the benefit so people could better afford good nutrition.
In answer to another congressional talking point, Cornia adds that most of the families who receive food assistance are working families or have disabilities that preclude work or are elderly.
Not everyone who’s low-income qualifies for SNAP. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says “Some people — such as individuals on strike, some college students, individuals with drug felony convictions in some states, and people with certain immigration statuses — are not eligible for SNAP benefits regardless of how small their income or assets may be.”
Additionally, “Most unemployed non-disabled adults aged 18 to 49 not living with minor children are limited to three months of benefits, unless they are working at least 20 hours per week or participating in a qualifying workfare or job training program.”
At street level
Jocelyn Lantrip, director of marketing and communications for the Food Bank of Northern Nevada in Spark, said they’ve seen “steady increases over the last couple of years and now we are seeing record numbers of people needing our help.”
Early in the pandemic, need increased because so many people lost jobs or went home to care for kids who’d been sent home from school. “Now we are seeing more people with jobs that are not able to make ends meet with the cost of living. Seniors are also a growing group of people needing our help,” said Lantrip.
She added: “Currently, we are helping an average of 130,000 people each month and we are expecting that number to continue to climb. We are also preparing for an influx of more people in April when the SNAP cuts are in effect. These particular cuts will hit seniors harder than most people. Seniors will see their benefits decrease 80%-90%.”
She said they’re doing outreach to make sure that the area they serve is aware of the help they can provide. It’s a whopping “90,000 square mile service area,” she told the Deseret News.
Montana ended its pandemic-related SNAP benefits in July 2021 and Montana Food Bank Network chief policy officer Lorianne Burhop said, “We don’t anticipate any changes related to SNAP” as the extra benefits nationwide end, “as many other states will likely experience. We continue to see high numbers at local agencies across the state, as SNAP has been reduced and the costs of living continue to rise.”