As emergency SNAP benefits end, anti-hunger groups scramble to meet the need

Millions of Americans are about to lose nearly $3 billion in SNAP benefits that were put into place to fight hunger during the pandemic. The extra benefits were not supposed expire until end of the Covid-19 public health emergency. But the government spending bill passed by Congress in December makes February the last month that the federal government will issue the emergency allotments. Anti-hunger groups say that these extra benefits have been a lifeline for families that are barely coping with high food and energy costs. They warn that people will go hungry, food pantries — already struggling with exceptionally high demand — will be overwhelmed and the economy will suffer. 

“This is the worst moment,” said Vince Hall, chief government relations officer at Feeding America. “Millions of Americans will have no place left to turn.”

The emergency allotments — which averaged $82 per person per month — reached 16.4 million households in January, according to the USDA. As FERN previously reported, more than a dozen states — all governed by Republicans — have already ended emergency allotments. In monthly surveys, Providers, an app used by 5 million SNAP recipients, has been comparing food security among people in states where the extra payments have ended with those in states where the benefits are still in place. It found “consistently higher” levels of food insecurity among people living in states without emergency allotments, according to a report released earlier this month, with respondents more likely to report visiting a food pantry, eating less or skipping meals than those living in states where the extra benefits were maintained.

The government spending bill that ended the program used the savings to make permanent another, narrower anti-hunger program called Summer EBT. 

Summer EBT — based on a temporary anti-hunger measure passed in response to the pandemic — aims to help families cope with the lack of free school meals during the summer by giving families an extra $40 per student per month. The program is popular among anti-hunger groups, but it doesn’t reach nearly as many people as the emergency SNAP allotments. “It’s not a good trade,” said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at the Food Research & Action Center. 

Older people will be especially hard-hit by the end of the emergency allotments, Vollinger said. The extra money brought most people’s SNAP benefits to the maximum for their household size — that took many seniors from $23 per month up to $281 per month. And households that were already getting the maximum benefit got an extra $95 a month. 

It’s not clear how people will cope with this loss come March, Vollinger said. “Where’s that cushion going to come from?”

Anti-hunger groups are doing what they can to prepare people who receive SNAP benefits. “This change is not good, but it’s coming and we want to figure out what we can do to try to ameliorate it,” said Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, speaking at a webinar organized by FRAC earlier this month. 

Community groups are working with SNAP recipients to make sure they’re maximizing the benefits they can get by claiming all of the deductions for housing, childcare and utilities they qualify for. But in most cases, claiming those deductions will only result in modest increases to benefits. Many people will still need to turn to food banks and pantries. 

The problem, Hall says, is that these operations are already overwhelmed with demand. In some places, food banks are serving more people now than they did at the height of the pandemic, he said, and have been plagued by high fuel and food costs and a drop in donations of food and money. Feeding America — a network of more than 200 food banks — is calling for more support from donors, volunteers and advocates.

States and cities can help make up the gap by giving SNAP recipients extra benefits, anti-hunger groups say. Washington, D.C., New Mexico and Maryland all provide supplemental monthly benefits on top of what they get through the federal program, and New Jersey will launch a similar program in the coming months. 

“These supplemental benefits are not just giveaways, these are investments,” said Wilson, noting that the extra funds stimulate the local economy and can reduce healthcare spending by making it possible for people to afford better food. 

For further-reaching fixes, anti-hunger groups are eyeing the farm bill. SNAP benefits should be permanently raised, Hall said, by basing the benefits on the price of a food basket that the USDA calls the Low-cost Food Plan, instead of the bare-bones Thrifty Food Plan currently in use. Feeding America is also asking Congress to double spending on the The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which would bring it to $500 million. And anti-hunger groups want to see waivers that temporarily expanded college students’ access to SNAP and eliminated time limits on how long able-bodied adults without dependents could get SNAP made permanent. 

“The economic crisis is still very present, and Americans are working hard,” Hall said, noting that SNAP primarily serves children, the elderly and people with disabilities. “Millions and millions have returned to jobs, but even with two jobs they’re not able to afford their monthly essentials without help from a food bank.”