The food pantry at Mary House is stocked with canned goods and paper products (Uniontown Herald-Standard photo)
With a pandemic-era emergency program helping households with grocery bills set to end this month, Pennsylvania food banks are bracing for increased need.
Due to a change in federal law, emergency allotment payments through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, end at the end of February. The program, which took effect in April 2020, increased monthly benefits to help those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Pennsylvania, the Department of Human Services distributed the emergency allocations as a second monthly payment to SNAP households, increasing their budget to the maximum available for their household size — or by $95 if they received the maximum available amount.
But now that it’s winding down, Pennsylvania SNAP recipients — beginning in March — will no longer receive the boost.
“This reduction in SNAP benefits is huge,” Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, said.
The food bank is responsible for a 27-county territory, and Arthur estimates that the benefit reduction will total roughly $40 million per month.
“This loss of grocery purchasing power, about $105 on average per individual SNAP recipient per month, will impact hundreds of thousands of central Pennsylvanians in need and the grocery stores and food markets where they shop for food.”
Colleen Young, director of government affairs for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, described the emergency allotments as a “lifeline” for those needing additional support to afford food.
During an interview with the Capital-Star, she said the food pantry, which serves 11 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania, has seen high numbers at its more than 1,100 partner pantries, even higher than during the pandemic due to assistance programs ending.
“And we are really expecting that number to increase as we go into March and beyond,” Young said.
Last year, the food bank reported a 58% increase in calls at its call centers, reflecting 18,736 calls, or an average of more than 1,500 per month. Young also said the food bank saw a 17% increase in total food distributed for July to December 2022 compared to the previous year.
In September 2022, 1.88 million people received SNAP benefits, according to the Department of Human Services.
That number has since increased to more than 1.9 million, Scott Cawthern, acting deputy secretary for DHS’s Office of Income Maintenance, told the Capital-Star.
“That’s nearly one in five households that are on SNAP, so if it’s not you personally, it’s probably somebody you know,” Young said. “This is going to have a huge impact on millions of people in our state, so we just want to make sure that we’re all paying attention and doing everything we can to support the fight to end hunger.”
Nationally, food prices increased by 9.9% in 2022, according to data from the United State Department of Agriculture.
Cawthern said that inflation is exacerbating the impact the federal allotment’s expiration will have on recipients.
“It impacts a lot of families,” Cawthern said, “but the impact is even greater because now your food dollars don’t go as far.”
Preparing for the change in SNAP benefits, the Department of Human Services has urged Pennsylvanians to report changes to their household size, income, or expenses online or by calling its customer service center at 877-395-8930 — or 215-560-7226 for Philadelphians — to ensure they’re receiving the maximum benefit.
The department also said it's encouraging SNAP recipients to explore other state-level assistance programs, such as the Department of Health’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and the Department of Agriculture’s Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
“We are encouraging them to seek that out as a resource to provide for the nutritional needs of their family, Cawthern said.
Additionally, households that receive SNAP and Social Security benefits will see a decrease in their SNAP benefits due to an 8.7% cost of living increase for Social Security that took effect at the beginning of the year.
“For the average person receiving Social Security, that’s going to decrease their SNAP benefit by $40,” Young said.
SNAP eligibility thresholds, also set by the federal government, did not rise proportionally. The Department of Human Services expects that 249,000 households will feel the impact of these changes. The state also anticipates that approximately 5,000 to 20,000 households will be disenrolled from SNAP due to the Social Security increase, mainly impacting older Pennsylvanians.
Cawthern said that DHS mailed letters to SNAP households in January explaining the upcoming changes. A second letter will be mailed this month, providing recipients with the updated monthly amount they will receive beginning in March.
“It's important,” Cawthern told the Capital-Star. “The more information we can get out ahead of this change is only going to help.”
Arthur and Young said their respective food banks and partner pantries are working to raise awareness and stock up on items in preparation for more demand. And with inflation making food more expensive, monetary donations are encouraged to defray costs.
“If you are able to help, I strongly encourage you to support your local food banks and pantries as they prepare to meet this need,” acting Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Val Arkoosh said earlier this month. “Small donations can grow into a big difference, so please do what you can so they can continue their life-saving work.”
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