In Brief

Hunger crisis may loom as emergency food assistance ends

By: - August 20, 2021 6:02 am

Pandemic-related boosts in programs aimed at reducing hunger are expiring soon. Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images.

As pandemic protections like eviction and foreclosure moratoriums near their end, pundits and policymakers have warned about the expected impact on homelessness.

But advocates for New Jersey’s poorest residents warn that federal emergency food assistance provided during the pandemic will go away soon too, and a recent bump in food stamp benefits won’t help enough to avoid a hunger crisis the state is ill-equipped to handle.

“This is a storm coming, and no one is talking about it,” said Yoni Yares, founder of Feed All the Children, an advocacy group based in Cherry Hill that supports food distribution in South Jersey.

To help those hardest hit by the pandemic, federal policymakers in January raised Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by 15%. In New Jersey, that bump translated into an extra $30 a month for each of the almost 850,000 New Jerseyans enrolled in SNAP, commonly known as food stamps, according to the N.J. Department of Human Services.

The feds also allowed all recipients to “maximize” benefits by determining what they should get solely by household size and income, instead of weighing other factors like childcare, utilities, and housing as they did before the pandemic to determine benefit amounts.

Additionally, more than 144,000 New Jerseyans enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), which serves women and children up to 5 years old, received roughly an extra $25 per month this summer, according to the USDA and the state.

The temporary increases expire at the end of September. And people in need can’t count on the maximized benefit, because the state decides whether to continue it on a monthly basis and could revoke it at any time.

“We’re facing a benefits cliff,” said Adele LaTourette, executive director of Hunger Free New Jersey.

‘A bureaucratic mess’

It’s not all bad news.

The Biden administration just this month approved a 25% permanent increase for families served by SNAP, the largest hike in the program’s history. And under the American Rescue Plan, the feds earmarked $880 million to expand food access for WIC recipients and another $37 million for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which serves seniors 60 and older. CSFP serves 6,906 low-income seniors in New Jersey, according to the state Department of Health.

But with SNAP’s temporary pandemic boost of 15% ending and the future of maximized benefits uncertain, the net SNAP gain really is just 10%, or even less. And that’s not enough, because food assistance was woefully low to begin with, anti-hunger activists say.

“A 10% gain is a PR stunt,” Yares said.

Many needy people rely on a patchwork of programs to put food on the table, because SNAP doesn’t cover their costs, advocates say. For example, the average SNAP benefit per meal is just $1.97, 22% less than the $2.41 a typical meal costs, according to research by the Urban Institute. So the maximum SNAP benefit in 2020 fell short in 96% of U.S. counties — and even after the 15% pandemic boost, the benefit still didn’t cover meal costs in 41% of U.S. counties, the institute found.

This is a storm coming, and no one is talking about it.

– Yoni Yares, founder of Feed All the Children

Meanwhile, food costs have climbed due to pandemic-created supply-chain disruptions, at the same time that hunger has grown in New Jersey, according to Feeding America. The number of SNAP recipients rose almost 19% in the past year, according to the state.

To compound matters, food assistance is difficult to apply for and navigate, advocates say.

Applicants have to prove financial need, and you must be quite poor to qualify, Yares said. A single person is eligible only if they make less than $23,616 a year, according to the N.J. Department of Human Services. For a family a family of four, the figure is $48,480.

“We’ve got a growing number of working poor or those who are making just a tad bit too much to qualify or working 1099 jobs with fluctuating incomes,” Yares said.

Food stamps aren’t accepted everywhere. And New Jersey is one of just a few states where WIC recipients have to use paper coupons, instead of electronic swipe cards, to buy food, advocates said. That is expected to change by the fall of 2022, when New Jersey is slated to become fully electronic.

Each of USDA’s food assistance programs (SNAP, WIC, CSFP, free and reduced-price school meals, and others) are managed by different state departments, further confusing things. And while New Jersey lawmakers passed legislation in June to appoint an official Food Insecurity Advocate, Gov. Phil Murphy has yet to sign it, leaving no one in charge of coordinating hunger-reduction efforts statewide.

“It’s a bureaucratic mess, and that creates an access problem,” Yares said.

State policymakers should be strategizing fixes now, advocates agree.

“We have 21 very unique counties in terms of what their circumstances are, and we need research on each to determine how to best address hunger and food insecurity in each,” Yares said. “It always takes a crisis to have these kinds of conversations, and that’s where we are now — a crisis.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.