How Benefit Cuts May Create a 'Perfect Storm' for Food Insecurity | How SNAP Cuts May Create a ‘Perfect Storm’ for Food Insecurity

How Benefit Cuts May Create a ‘Perfect Storm’ for Food Insecurity

Hunger advocates and researchers believe the end to emergency allotments—coupled with revised work requirements for SNAP—will pressure food banks, hurt public health, impact kids, and revive old prejudices. 

A woman holds a bag of pears as she waits in line to receive free food at the Richmond Emergency Food Bank. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A woman holds a bag of pears as she waits in line to receive free food at the Richmond Emergency Food Bank. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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We also spoke to four Americans grappling with the daily realities of food insecurity. See their stories here.

In 2004, long before the term “food insecurity” had entered the mainstream lexicon, Dr. Hilary Seligman met with a prediabetic patient. A man in his 50s, he shared that he typically ate a slice of spam sandwiched between two cinnamon rolls for lunch. When Seligman wondered why, he said it was affordable, filling, and available. The interaction inspired Seligman to research all the ways in which limited or uncertain access to food could damage health, including acting as a risk factor for diabetes.

Since then, Seligman, who is a professor of medicine, epidemiology, and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, has seen how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is key to ensuring access to a variety of foods for the 41 million low-income and disabled Americans who rely on it. “There’s a lot of evidence that shows that SNAP reduces food insecurity by 20 to 30 percent,” she says.

In March 2020, the federal government passed a law significantly boosting SNAP benefits. Known as “emergency allotments,” there were adjustments during the pandemic that ensured all eligible households had more money for food. One change maximized benefits and led to an average increase of $105 per household. About a year later, another adjustment ensured every household, no matter their level of assistance, received at least $95.

“There’s a lot of evidence that shows that SNAP reduces food insecurity by 20 to 30 percent.”

It’s widely believed these emergency allotments likely prevented a massive food insecurity crisis over the last three years. In households with children, food insecurity actually dropped to 12.5 percent in 2021, down from nearly 15 percent the year prior.

As of March 2023, however, the emergency allotments ended in most states, and households’ benefits were once again determined by the pre-pandemic formula. According to the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), some older adults have experienced the steepest cliff, with their monthly SNAP benefits falling from as high as $281 down to $23. The recent debt ceiling deal will add to the challenges, as it will extend the current 80 hour/month work requirements to adults who are 52 later this year and 54 in 2024.

While the emergency allotments were always intended to be temporary, in 2021, the USDA also recalculated what each household needs in assistance to afford well-balanced, cost-effective meals moving forward. Known as the Thrifty Food Plan, the update helped permanently raise the maximum SNAP benefit by about 21 percent.

Still, with the disappearance of emergency allotments, along with consistently high food costs, Seligman believes there’s “a perfect storm” for a delayed surge in food insecurity. Many hunger advocates and researchers believe the end to emergency allotments—coupled with the revised work requirements for SNAP—will likely have both immediate and far-reaching impacts, including the following:

1. It Puts Pressure on Food Banks

Leah Gardner, policy director with Hunger Solutions Minnesota, says in the last two months, visits to food shelves that distribute donated and surplus food in the state have spiked. This comes after a record number of visits in 2022. “I think people are going to be turning to food shelves for a while now. And [they] are pretty maxed out already,” she says. “Thankfully, we were able to get emergency funds expedited through our legislative session. So, we are about to give $5 million more in resources to food shelves in anticipation of this.” But that hasn’t happened in every state.

In Colorado, the director of Food Bank of the Rockies Western Slope told her local newspaper, “Overall, we’re distributing 23 percent more food than we were before COVID.” In Pennsylvania, Central PA Food Bank saw a 15 percent increase in food pantry visits in the last two months. At the Capital Area Food Bank, in Washington D.C., the staff reported a 13 percent increase in the amount of fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, and canned goods it distributed in March. And in San Francisco, the SF-Marin Food Bank says it is serving 74 percent more people than in 2019, even while the city’s mayor is proposing cutting all $10 million in city funding for the organization.

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All the changes to SNAP in the last two years have resulted in some confusion, says Jerome Nathaniel, director of policy and government relations with City Harvest, which may also contribute to long lines at food banks and free feeding sites. “It’s hard to be in a situation where your food budget is so unpredictable,” he says.

2. It Will Likely Lead to Poor Health Outcomes

A 2022 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found that food insecure households spend roughly 45 percent more on medical care than households with stable food access. It also found that SNAP recipients are more likely to report excellent or good health than low-income individuals not receiving food assistance. UCSF’s Seligman worries that with the expiration of emergency allotments, money for food will have to come from somewhere, and for many that may mean abandoning medication.

“There’s really good evidence that the money being put into SNAP benefits is being recouped in saved healthcare costs.”

Alternatively, households may revert to eating lower quality, highly processed foods. “Cheaper foods in the United States tend to be very energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods that predispose people to obesity and diabetes,” she says. “And this is a really important mechanism for increasing health disparities.”

According to the CBPP report, the health risks and strain associated with food insecurity fall disproportionately on people of color; Black and Latin American households have been at least twice as likely to experience food insecurity as white households over the last 20 years.

Seligman says the (largely Republican) politicians who attack the program for its cost and size are ignoring the “downstream” costs of poor health. “There’s really good evidence that the money being put into SNAP benefits is being recouped in saved healthcare costs,” she says.

3. Children Will Not Be Spared—Although Summer Might Pose an Exception

Food insecurity is linked to poor health and academic performance in kids and, Seligman says, young adults face their own hardships. “We also know food-insecure adolescents are more likely to engage in risky behavior. For boys, that is often shoplifting, which can expose people to the criminal justice system for the first time and that can have a life-changing impact,” she says. “For girls, it’s often having sexual relationships with older men who can pay for food.”

“In rural communities, there aren’t a lot of community locations that kids can regularly and easily get to during the summer, much less twice a day for breakfast and lunch.”

At the end of 2022, as legislators in D.C. negotiated the end-of-the-year budget bill (aka the Consolidated Appropriations Act), Democrats agreed to end SNAP’s emergency allotments in exchange for increased spending on summer meals for low-income kids.

Starting next year, low-income families will receive a monthly $40 grocery benefit per child during the summer months. And starting this year, families in rural areas will be able to pick up meals in bulk from designated sites or have them delivered. “In rural communities, there aren’t a lot of community locations that kids can regularly and easily get to [at all] during the summer, much less twice a day for breakfast and lunch,” says Carolyn Vega, associate director of policy at Share Our Strength, a nonprofit advocacy group that runs the No Kid Hungry campaign. “This ability to do weekly meal boxes and things like that really helps with those transportation issues.”

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4. It Risks Reviving Old Prejudices

Lorrie Clevenger, senior co-director of U.S. programs at WhyHunger, a nonprofit focusing on solutions to hunger, says she’s troubled that with the COVID-19 emergency ending, there’s a return to old tropes around hunger. “[There is] this narrative that people who need SNAP, Medicaid, [or] other forms of public assistance have done something personally in their own lives to get themselves into that situation,” she says, adding, “which is simply not the case.”

A 2017 CBPP study found that the share of households wherein members worked jobs while participating in SNAP rose from 19 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2015. In the case of some low-wage occupations—for example, house cleaners, dishwashers, and home health aides—at least one quarter of the workers participate in SNAP, though it may be for only a brief time and not a sustained year-around benefit. According to the GAO, 70 percent of adult wage-earning SNAP recipients worked full -time every week.

Meanwhile, food workers—including those who work on farms, in restaurants, and in grocery stores, among others—are twice as likely to need SNAP than other U.S. workers. A recent eye-opening report from Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit research organization, found that one out of 17 homeless workers in California work in fast food.

Clevenger says WhyHunger’s hotline, which refers callers to local food banks and feeding sites, as well as their database of referral information, saw a 134 percent increase when the pandemic hit, and the requests have not slowed down, despite the recent end of the public health emergency. She says most people who call in are seniors, but it’s not uncommon to hear from people who are “working one, two, three jobs and still aren’t able to afford their basic cost of living.” Clevenger is frustrated that the end to emergency allotments will only increase need, and that the many inequities COVID-19 has laid bare are now at risk of being forgotten in the rush to shed pandemic-era assistance.

Anne Marshall-Chalmers is an investigative journalist at The War Horse and a former staff reporter with Civil Eats. A California native, she spent several years working as a reporter, writer, and audio producer in Tennessee and Kentucky before returning to the Bay Area to earn a master’s degree from the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Atlas Obscura, USA Today, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, NPR, CalMatters, Inside Climate News, and Louisville Magazine. She reports on climate change, agriculture, public health, and the spaces where these topics intersect. Read more >

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