With pandemic SNAP benefits expired, central Pa. food banks see sharp rise in people seeking help
Noemis De Jesus has to be careful about every spending decision she makes. Treating herself in a restaurant or buying that pair of flip-flops she needs might mean she won’t have enough money for groceries or gas to get her through the month.
“I don’t have the luxury of going to a birthday party with a gift. I can’t buy it, so I don’t go. I don’t participate. I can’t eat a bite of hot dog, because I can’t buy that hot dog, even if it’s cheap, ” De Jesus said in Spanish. "I have to control myself. I have to be strong when it comes to buying things.”
De Jesus, who lives on her own in Harrisburg, is a 51-year-old former social worker. She stopped working in 2019 and went on disability after she was injured in an attack. She receives about $986 a month in social security disability payments. With that money she has to pay rent, which is $525, utilities and her medical bills.
She gets somewhere between $93 and $114 a month through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP. Every time she buys food, she has to carefully plan how to stretch it out for a month. When she runs out of food, she might have to make do with eating white rice and a fried egg or Lipton soup for a few days in a row until she gets her next allotment.
With the price of food staples such as eggs and milk on the rise, De Jesus has been finding it harder to meet her basic nutritional needs.
“If they keep raising the price of milk, bread and other things, we, the poor, end up having less to eat,” De Jesus said.
During the pandemic, she received extra SNAP payments through an emergency program Congress approved in March 2020. With the SNAP Emergency Allotment, De Jesus would get roughly $280 for food. That extra money, De Jesus said, allowed her to stock up on meat and other things in bulk. In January, she was able to buy a ham for dinner.
In February, De Jesus got a letter notifying her that her extra SNAP benefits were ending on March 1.
With fewer SNAP benefits, De Jesus now has to find other ways to get enough healthy food to tide her over. She is trying to find other ways to cut her monthly expenses. For example, she is considering applying for government assistance to pay for her phone bill. Sometimes she goes to her sister’s house in Allentown to help out with cooking, in exchange for a portion of the food to store in her freezer. She has also started going to the Salvation Army food pantry in Harrisburg. De Jesus didn’t know she was eligible to get help from the food pantry because she does not have children, but now she plans to go there regularly for her food needs.
Before the extra SNAP benefits expired, Central PA Food Bank was expecting a rise in people seeking food in the pantries that are part of their network. In a policy brief that uses data from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, the nonprofit projected that the average monthly benefits per person across its service territory would fall by $105, from $271 to $166.
Central PA Food Bank’s research team found there was a 15% increase in food pantry visits during the seven weeks after the pandemic-era benefits ended in early March. The nonprofit’s executive director, Joe Arthur, said he did not think it would happen so fast.
“The inflation picture for families, for everybody, has been a big deal, but for people that were right on the line, it’s moved a lot of those folks into needing help,” Arthur said. “We’re really at a level that’s almost where we were, in that first year, the pandemic, in terms of the amount of people that are seeking assistance."
Between 2020 and 2021, Central PA Food Bank, which serves 27 counties, shared about 72 million pounds of food.
With the SNAP Emergency Allotments, households were getting an additional $95 each month. Bigger families might have been receiving a couple hundred dollars more each month.
In Pennsylvania, where nearly 2 million depend on SNAP, there was an average loss of $181 SNAP dollars per household after the emergency allotments ended in March, according to the state Department of Human Services.
The Salvation Army pantry in Harrisburg, where De Jesus went to get food, saw an increase in people seeking emergency food boxes, which contain shelf-stable goods from every food group. Meghan Zook, Community Health and Nutrition Administrator at The Salvation Army Harrisburg Capital City Region, said the emergency assists, where people can walk off the street, doubled between February and the end of March.
“That data would tell us that people are feeling it. They’re feeling like they don’t have as much money to shop and they need something that can hold them over a little bit longer,” Zook said.
Zook said some people would receive $20 a month through the program but when COVID-19 benefits kicked in, they would get up to $200.
“So they got used to that for the length of the COVID emergency over two years, and all their other prices for living are rising, rent is increasing, general groceries at the store increasing,” Zook said. “And then to bump them back down to what they were receiving before without any other support. It’s just very hard.“
Governor Josh Shapiro’s proposed 2023-2024 budget seeks to increase the state’s minimum SNAP benefit by 50 percent. It would also increase the minimum monthly SNAP benefit for older adults and people with disabilities to $35 each month.
“The longer that we take to figure this stuff out, is hurting people,” Zook said. “It’s stressing out all of the nonprofits that are working in the region, people are burning out. Because we want it we want to provide the services. But if we can’t have the funding, if we just don’t have enough hours in the day, we leave feeling defeated.”