WASHINGTON — Nearly 30 million Americans who got extra government help with grocery bills during the pandemic will soon see that aid shrink — and there’s a big push to make sure they’re not surprised.
Officials in 32 states and other jurisdictions have been using texts, voicemails, snail mail, flyers and social media posts — all in multiple languages — to let recipients know that their extra food stamps end after February's payments.
“One of the scenarios you don’t want to see is the first time they’re aware of it is in the checkout line at the grocery store,” said Ellen Vollinger, an official with the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit organization.
For the average recipient, the change will mean about $90 less per month, though for many, it could be much more, an analysis shows. Benefits will return to usual levels, which are based largely on a household's income, size and certain expenses, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
A public notice in Michigan urged the 1.3 million recipients in that state to “seek needed resources” to make up for the cuts.
“We want to make sure our clients are prepared for this change, as we realize inflation is affecting all of us,” said Lewis Roubal with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Jacqueline Benitez, 21, who works as a preschool teacher in Bellflower, California, expects a significant cut, perhaps half, of the $250 in food benefits she has received since 2020 through CalFresh, the state’s SNAP program.
"It’s such a lifesaver,” said Benitez, who was previously homeless, but now lives in a subsidized one-bedroom apartment. “Food is such a huge expense. It’s a little nerve-wracking to think about not having that.”
Benitez said she’s already thinking twice about paying $5 for fresh fruit.
“What happens if it goes bad?” she said.
The emergency program was enacted by Congress at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and expanded a year later. Originally, the extra benefits were intended to continue as long as the COVID-19 public health emergency was in force. It's now set to expire in May.
But 18 states have already rolled back payments for more than 10 million people and Congress decided to end the program early, trading the extra benefits for a new permanent program that provides extra money to low-income families to replace school meals during the summer.
Experts credit the emergency funds with making sure most Americans had enough food to eat, despite the pandemic. About 10% of U.S. households had trouble obtaining sufficient food in 2020 and 2021, roughly unchanged from pre-COVID levels.
SNAP benefits can rise and fall with inflation and other factors. Maximum benefits went up by 12% in October to reflect an annual cost-of-living adjustment boosted by higher prices for foods and other goods. But payments went down for those who also receive Social Security because of the 8.7% cost-of-living increase in that program on Jan 1.
In most such cases, purchasing power should hold steady, said Stacy Dean, USDA deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.
“The emergency allotments were always intended to be temporary and they did tremendous good during a very difficult time in our country,” Dean said. “The process of unwinding from them will certainly be difficult for families who are counting on those benefits.”
The rollback is coming during a time when inflation, though improving, remains elevated and food prices are still high.
Shelley Boyd, 45, of Beaver, Pennsylvania, expects to make more trips to her local food pantry starting next month. She and her fiancé and teenage son started getting food stamps last year after both adults lost their jobs and unemployment benefits ran out. The family receives about $630 per month. They expect to lose about $95, if not more.
“That’s where our food pantry comes in,” Boyd said. “We visit them and do what you gotta do.”
At the same time, food pantries nationwide remain under “immense strain,” said Vince Hall, an official with Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks. Demand for help remains far above pre-pandemic levels, even as food banks face continued supply chain disruptions, higher food and transportation costs and lower food donations.
Andrew Cheyne, managing director of public policy for GRACE, a California-based anti-poverty organization, urged recipients to reach out now to county offices to update their eligibility and ensure they’re getting the maximum benefit possible. Changes in costs for shelter, child care, elder care and other expenses can affect food stamp benefits.
Recipients can also check other benefits, such as the federal Women, Infants and Children program and seek out refundable tax credits.
Cheyne and other advocates said the emergency benefits should have been extended indefinitely instead of cut prematurely.
“It’s just an unimaginable hunger cliff that folks were going to go over at some point,” he said.