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Pandemic food assistance that held back hunger comes to an end

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Additional benefits during the pandemic helped SNAP recipients reduce hunger and buy more expensive, healthy food.

Millions of Americans will have less to spend on groceries as emergency food assistance that Congress enacted early in the pandemic has ended.

On average, individuals will get about $90 less this month in benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP. Some households will see a cut of $250 a month or more, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institute.

"This is a change that will increase hardship for many individuals and families, especially given the modest amount of regular SNAP benefits, which are only about $6 per person per day, on average," says Dottie Rosenbaum, director of federal SNAP policy for the institute.

About 40 million people in the U.S. are helped out by SNAP. Some states had already phased out the pandemic assistance, and the remaining 32 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands issued their last emergency benefits in February.

The cut in SNAP benefits comes as food prices continue to rise. Carlis Phares, who is 64 and lives in Columbus, Ohio, calls it a double whammy.

"It's going to be a lot harder," Phares says.

Social Security is her main source of income, and while those payments include a cost-of-living adjustment, it hasn't kept up with the increase in rent and other expenses, Phares says. The pandemic boost in SNAP allotments helped her eat well and preserve her Social Security money for other things. Now she'll have to do more with less.

"I'm going to figure out how to make it stretch," Phares says. One strategy to save money is to cut back on meat and fresh produce and stock up on cheaper foods, such as crackers, bread and rice, she says. But Phares knows this isn't good for her.

"The cheapest stuff is the less healthy stuff," Phares says. "I learned that, because I gained a lot of weight eating on the cheaper stuff — the starches, the crackers. And now that I've gotten myself to a better weight, I'm going to have to figure that out," she says.

Rosenbaum says the annual cost-of-living increase built into SNAP will help "soften" the blow from the cut in emergency allotments. In addition, a re-evaluation of benefits in 2021 aimed at making nutritious foods more affordable led to a bump in payments, which also partially offsets the cuts.

Even so, in 2020, at the start of the pandemic, nearly 9.5 million older adults, ages 50 and up, were considered " food insecure," meaning they sometimes struggled to afford all the food they needed, according to an AARP analysis. In addition, an estimated 9 million children live in food insecure homes, according to No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit group that works to end hunger. Overall, about 10% of U.S. households experienced food insecurity at some point in 2021.

"SNAP remains our most powerful tool for combating hunger," Rosenbaum says. "It's found to be linked to improved health, education and economic outcomes and to lower medical costs," she says.

This year, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill re-authorize the farm bill, which includes a review of the SNAP program, advocates say there's an opportunity to strengthen the program, especially at a time when diet-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes are on the rise.

A recent CDC report found 1 in 2 young children in the U.S. don't eat a daily vegetable, but most consume plenty of sugary drinks. And about 1 in 5 children in the U.S. have obesity.

The Bipartisan Policy Center's Food and Nutrition Security Task Force recommends strengthening food and nutrition security through the farm bill, including expanding the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program that gives SNAP recipients more money to buy fruits and vegetables.

This is similar to the Double Up Food Bucks program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which doubles the value of SNAP benefits when used to buy produce at farmers markets and other venues. Another idea is to strengthen standards for retailers to encourage a wider variety of nutritious foods in stores.

The farm bill, which is typically re-authorized every five years, is set to expire at the end of September. It's a massive piece of legislation that governs everything from agriculture subsidies to nutrition programs, including SNAP.

"[We're] looking at the farm bill as anti-hunger legislation," says Eric Mitchell, executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger.

Mitchell says there's lots of momentum — from a wide variety of groups, policymakers to health care organizations — to scale up programs that can be beneficial. Mitchell points to a couple of examples: "Being able to use SNAP benefits at your local farmers markets, as well as creating food pharmacies where you can use your SNAP benefits to purchase healthy foods to help improve your health outcomes."

In the meantime there are still many people in need. The Mid-Ohio Food Collective, Ohio's largest food bank, has seen an increase in the need for its services even before the emergency benefits ran out.

Carlis Phares says with a reduced benefit she'll have to rely on some basics from the food bank. "I think there's going to be a whole lot of people going to the food banks," she says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.