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Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.
More than 3 in 10 Philadelphians will have less to spend on groceries this month.
People enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the federal program known colloquially as food stamps, have been receiving twice-per-month benefits for the past three years. They got a regular payment at the start of the month, plus a pandemic-era supplement.
“When you don’t get enough money to pay for your food, and then you get some extra, it feels really good to have the extra,” said Debbie Paliagas, a retired Logan resident in her 60s who mostly relies upon her Social Security income.
The extra SNAP helped her pay for food for several more weeks compared to the amount she’d been receiving pre-pandemic, she told Billy Penn.
She’s now worried about how she’s going to afford to eat. “To have it just like a rug pulled out from underneath you — it’s not very comfortable,” Paliagas said.
March marks the first month without that extra payment, thanks to a compromise bill passed by Congress in December. It ends what was known as “emergency allotments,” or EAs, a pandemic measure first authorized in spring 2020 as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
That means a benefits cut of at least $95 per household — and in some cases, much more. On average, a SNAP household in Pa. will be down $92 per person, according to an estimate by regional food bank Philabundance.
The change will have an outsized impact on Philadelphia, where more than 485,000 people — 30% of city residents — received SNAP as of this January, per the Pa. Department of Human Services. Philly residents make up 12% of the commonwealth’s population, but 26% of the 1.9 million Pennsylvanians enrolled in the program.
We’ve collected some resources to help, below.
SNAP benefit amounts are typically based on household income, expenses, and size. While emergency allotments were in effect, all enrolled households received the maximum monthly amount according to size alone. Households already eligible to receive the max amount, or within $95 of it, got $95 extra per month. The usual benefit amount was loaded to each household’s EBT card at the beginning of each month, and then the add-on became available later in the month.
The program is ending as many people and families have been feeling the pinch of inflation at the grocery store.
Leona Brown, a North Philly mother with three kids, told Billy Penn in January that high prices were already making it difficult to afford food for her family, particularly healthy food.
Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of food prepared at home went up 14.3% in the Philly region between last January and this one. SNAP benefit amounts and income eligibility are adjusted for cost of living every year, but changes don’t take effect until October, at the start of the federal fiscal year.
“It normally takes me about 30 minutes to grocery shop, because I always get the same stuff,” said Brown, who is enrolled in SNAP and is part of Drexel’s Building Health and Wealth Network. “But [yesterday] it literally took me an hour and a half … I had to keep taking stuff off. Oh, that’s too high. Oh, I can’t afford that. Oh, wait a minute.”
Brown’s first thought upon finding out the emergency allotments would be ending, she said, was, “What am I gonna do now?”
Changes for each household vary based on recipients’ specific financial circumstances. Logan resident Paliagas said she’s losing over half of what she was receiving each month.
“It’s impacted me a lot,” Paliagas said. “I was like, ‘No, no, they can’t do that.’ But of course they can. Because that was extra … It wasn’t permanent. And I knew that. But I sort of conveniently forgot about that for a while.”
‘I needed that extra benefit now more than anything’
Along with inflation shrinking the amount of food people can buy with their food stamps, pandemic-related circumstances are still affecting some people — and their incomes.
Audra, a single mother of three who lives in West Philly, told Billy Penn she works part-time so she can be available to drive her autistic son to and from school, since a district bus driver shortage has impacted how he can get there.
“A person like me, I’m just shifting based on the things that are happening, mixed with my own personal life,” Audra said. “So I needed that extra benefit now more than anything, because the price of food is going up, and my working situation can change, but not so much just yet.”
Ending EAs “before the emergency is actually over” is a real problem, said Mariana Chilton, a public health professor and the director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel.
“I am especially concerned for families with children, who really rely on making sure that they can feed their children nutritious meals consistently,” Chilton said. “That really helps with very young children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, and it helps kids who are school age and who are adolescents — it helps them with their mental health as well.”
Initially, SNAP emergency allotments were meant to expire at the same time as the federal government’s public health emergency, except in states that had lifted their own emergency declarations. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced last month that the federal emergency would expire in May.
But Congress built an earlier end date for the SNAP EAs into its omnibus spending bill in December — part of a political tradeoff that would establish a permanent children’s summer food assistance program.
The new program will offer $40 per month in summertime food funds for kids who qualify for free and reduced school lunches. Anti-hunger advocates, including Chilton, have applauded the positive impact it could have on children’s year-round nutrition.
Still, some are feeling disappointed or frustrated over what the trade-off means for the present.
“Certainly investment in programs like that are absolutely necessary,” said George Matysik, executive director of Share Food Program, a Philadelphia nonprofit. But he described a “crisis” developing right now. “[There’s] this just unprecedented avalanche of need that we’ve seen the last year or so,” Matysik said.
The Philadelphia economy could also take a big hit from the SNAP decreases, Chilton pointed out, since people will be spending less at grocery stores and other food retailers.
Experts have found that every $1 in SNAP spending returns over $1 in economic activity. An analysis by the USDA’s Economic Research Service found that $1 billion in SNAP benefits would return $1.54 billion in GDP during a slowing economy, and per NBC, an economist from Moody’s Analytics found that every $1 spent in food stamps creates $1.67 in economic activity.
It’s not clear exactly how much the emergency allotments have contributed toward Philly’s economy specifically, since the Pa. Department of Human Services doesn’t track the allotments by county.
Statewide, EAs have contributed $4.5 billion in spending power since the government started distributing them in 2020, per DHS. The department estimated nearly $190 million in emergency allotments were issued statewide in January alone.
Turning toward the ‘last line of defense’
Philadelphians affected by the disappearance of the emergency allotments are making plans to adapt in a few different ways, they told Billy Penn.
Brown, the North Philly resident, said she’s been budgeting past allotments to prep for the end of them. Paliagas, of Logan, said she’s started buying more discounted food and visiting food pantries.
Alisha Gillespie, a Germantown resident and mother of three sons, said she’d be turning toward prayer — and making big, “army-style” meals for her family that she can “stretch.”
“I gotta really ration out things,” said Gillespie, who like Brown is a part of the Drexel health and wealth network. “I don’t want it to be like that, but … I’m a strong person and I’ve been through worse so it’s like, whatever comes, I’m ready for it.”
Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration has encouraged impacted Pennsylvanians to see if they’re eligible for other existing government programs, like WIC and the Senior Food Box Program.
The administration has also pointed people experiencing hunger and encouraged donations to the “charitable food network,” which Cheryl Cook, a deputy secretary at the state Department of Agriculture, called a “last line of defense against hunger, not a replacement for SNAP.”
In Philly, charitable organizations that aim to address food insecurity are bracing for increased demand. But right now, their capacity to serve is being impacted by the economy and other pandemic-era hurdles, some told Billy Penn.
Matysik, the Share Food Program director, said in a January interview that it’s “never been more challenging” for his organization from a resource management perspective.
At the start of 2023, he said, the level of need “isn’t that far off of where we were in 2020,” but the org has run into challenges with supply chains, has been feeling the impact of inflation, and isn’t getting the same level of charitable support it saw early in the pandemic.
Other emergency food programs, he said, like the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box, have also disappeared.
“What is different now is,” Matysik said, “while we’ve had this unprecedented growth in need, we’re not getting the resources from Washington, and in fact, quite the opposite with a cut to SNAP benefits.”
FOOD SECURITY RESOURCES
If you’re dealing with increased food insecurity due to the end of the EAs — or for any other reason — there are places and programs you may be able to turn to.
One thing SNAP recipients can do, said Louise Hayes, an attorney at Community Legal Services, is make sure that the county assistance office is aware of any changes to their income or expenses. Some expenses, like medical costs for people over 60 or childcare, can be deducted from your income and increase the amount of SNAP you’re eligible for.
The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger operates a SNAP hotline that directly helps people fill out SNAP applications and can help them get approved for the full amount they’re eligible for, said Katie Milholin, the organization’s director of policy and education. The number is 215-430-0556.
Other government programs provide food assistance for certain groups of people with low incomes: WIC is targeted toward pregnant people and kids under 5, and the Senior Food Box Program is aimed at people ages 60 and older.
There are also anti-hunger organizations in Philly and the surrounding area that can help too. You can find a WHYY News guide to some food pantries and distribution sites in the region here. The City of Philadelphia maintains a map of food distribution sites here.
Can Pa. elected officials help?
With the end of SNAP EAs likely to bring gaps in food security for Pennsylvanians, do government leaders have plans to ameliorate the issue?
The Pa. Department of Human Services is “currently engaged in discussions focused on what can be done to address these federal changes from a policy perspective,” a spokesperson said, adding that some changes would require federal or state legislative action. “DHS stands ready to work with our respective delegations to consider additional ideas.”
SNAP is a federal program, and it’s generally a major piece of what’s funded by the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation renegotiated every five years.
Newly-elected Sen. John Fetterman sits on the Senate’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and chairs the subcommittee that handles issues like food and nutrition assistance and school meals.
Fetterman’s office didn’t point to any specific goals for the upcoming Farm Bill negotiations, but press secretary Nick Gavio said the senator will use his role “to protect programs like SNAP and guarantee the benefits it provides for working families across Pennsylvania.”
“The pandemic revealed how critical programs like SNAP, school lunch, and other basic food security programs are for people across the country,” Gavio told Billy Penn.
Gillespie, the Germantown mother, hopes decision makers take people like her into account.
“With politicians, they should have people like me at these tables when they’re making these decisions to see how they can better accommodate people as a whole,” Gillespie said. “These people have not walked a mile in our shoes … I feel like you can’t really make a decision on a place you never lived or you never touched the ground on.”
Clarification: The SNAP emergency allotments were first instituted as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, not the CARES Act.
Updated March 13 with additional food security resources.
Billy Penn is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow at @brokeinphilly