WASHINGTON – For Mary Davis, a single parent who lives in Minnetonka, the food stamp program has protected her and her 12-year-old son Maurion from hunger.
She receives $460 a month in benefits. With inflationary food prices, Davis said “at the grocery store, I pick everything that looks cheap and stay away from healthy food because it costs more.”
Davis, 33, is plagued by a number of health problems and her only income is $990 a month in Social Security disability payments. She sometimes is forced to visit a local food shelf to supplement the groceries she is able to buy with her food stamps. Still, the program helps keep her kitchen shelves and refrigerator stocked.
But Davis, and hundreds of thousands of other Minnesotans, will have their benefits reduced – and some will lose them altogether – when a boost to the food stamp program in response to the pandemic comes to an end.
For Davis, her benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the official name of the food stamp program, would be cut in half, to $230 a month.
“I don’t know what I’ll do then,” Davis said.
Others, like single adults without children or a job would no longer be eligible for assistance and many low-income college students would also lose benefits. In addition, seniors who receive Social Security would also have their benefits cut dramatically.
SNAP is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program administered by the states but fully funded by the federal government. The expansion of SNAP is based on a presidential declaration of a public health emergency. President Joe Biden extended that emergency for an additional 90 days in July, and may extend it again in October.
But that’s not certain. When the emergency declaration was extended in July, the administration encouraged states to prepare for its termination.
The emergency SNAP benefits would end a month after the emergency declaration expires.
Nationally, SNAP enrollment climbed by more than 4 million recipients during the pandemic and everyone who was eligible for the program received maximum benefits, thanks to legislation Congress approved to combat the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, benefits were determined by income and the program will return to that system after the emergency declarations expire.
According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, there were about 393,000 Minnesotans receiving food stamp benefits in 2019. That grew to nearly 437,000 in July of 2022, an increase of about 44,000 people.
More telling about the pandemic’s expansion of SNAP is that in 2019, the federal government spend about $44 million a month on the program in Minnesota. That rose to about $100.2 million in July.
The state has recently helped low-income people fight food insecurity by increasing the cutoff for eligibility for SNAP from 165% of the federal poverty level to 200% of the federal poverty level, or $63,840 for a family of four. That change took place Sept. 1.
But the state’s expansion of eligibility will be greatly undercut when the pandemic’s expansion of SNAP ends.
“When these benefits end it’s going to be a severe cliff,” said Rachel Holmes, associate director for Hunger Solutions, a statewide anti-hunger organization.
The hungriest summer
Hunger Solutions said right now as many as one in nine Minnesotans are food insecure.
According to Second Harvest Heartland, one of the largest food banks in the nation and one that provides food to pantries and food shelves in 41 Minnesota counties, this summer was the “hungriest.” The pantries and food shelves that are stocked by Second Harvest reported 20% to 30% increases in visits, many by first-timers, even as the food bank itself struggled with stubbornly ever-higher food prices.
While the food bank receives s donations from food processors like General Mills and from grocery stores donations and free food from the federal government, it must also purchase food.
“It’s been harder for us to source the food we need,” said Rachel Sosnowchik, spokeswoman for Second Harvest Heartland. “This summer has been really tough.”
The fall will be even tougher if the SNAP program is reduced and food prices remain high, as is expected.
Sosnowchik said that during the pandemic, the federal government’s boost of unemployment benefits, distribution of stimulus checks, and new child tax credits helped struggling families buy food. But those programs – as well as the pandemic’s free school meals – have ended now, leaving SNAP the strongest weapon to fight food insecurity.
And by giving people money so they can buy food directly, the SNAP program is much more efficient than food pantries in fighting hunger, Sosnowchik said.
“For every meal provided by a food bank, SNAP provides nine,” she said.
That’s because food banks like Second Harvest Heartland have to pay for overhead – hire employees and drivers for its 48 trucks, and have storage space for the food it collects and distributes.
“No overhead costs allows the money to go further,” Sosnowchik said of SNAP benefits.
With hunger increasing in the United States, the USDA recently announced that it will provide nearly $2 billion in additional funding to food banks and school meal programs to purchase American-grown food.
The money will come from a Depression-era program called the Commodity Credit Corporation, whose aim was to “stabilize, support and protect farm income and prices,” not fight hunger.
Nevertheless, Sosnowchik said she’s grateful.
“This influx of food from the USDA is going to make a huge impact,” she said.