Weeks After Shutdown, 'SNAP Gap' Stretches Food Pantries Thin

Feb 5, 2019

As another federal government shutdown looms, programs that give assistance to those in need are still feeling the effects days and weeks after the end of the last one. WMRA’s Bridget Manley reports.

[Sound from food bank]

It’s a Saturday morning at Hope Distributed in Harrisonburg, a food pantry that feeds more than 24,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley each year.

This morning, the lobby is full and the need is great. Hope Distributed is one of the many food pantries that the Blue Ridge Food Bank Area Network services.

Volunteers set up a shop, complete with shopping carts and signs telling those picking up food how much of each grocery item they may take.

CARETAKER: What do you think, Granny? You want blackberries, or do you want blueberries? Watermelon?

Food banks and pantries are bracing for another rise in need as an aftereffect of the federal government shutdown - what they are calling “the S.N.A.P. gap.”

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - or S.N.A.P. Program - handed out benefits to recipients two weeks early because of a fear of lack of funding from last month’s government shutdown.  For most recipients, that means an early January boost to February benefits on their EBT cards.

As a result, most recipients won’t get their next set of benefits until mid-March, leaving an approximate 55 day gap.

Blue Ridge Area Food Bank CEO Michael McKee says that people who received their S.N.A.P. benefits for February two weeks early might run out of available funds quickly and will therefore have to turn to food pantries and food banks for assistance.

MICHAEL MCKEE: What’s making that prospect even more alarming to us is the cold weather. We know that people often have to choose whether to heat their homes or to eat. In this kind of weather they have no choice. They are going to heat their homes and that will likely mean that they will run through their S.N.A.P. benefits or their available food more quickly.

Blue Ridge Area Food Bank services pantries all around the Shenandoah Valley.  The food bank provides fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, and other dietary staples that help people who would otherwise not be able to afford a variety of food.

Mariah Rout - Smith has a three-year-old daughter. She said her S.N.A.P. benefits help provide her family healthy foods.  Her paycheck working for a dollar convenience store doesn’t cover all of her bills, and she’s grateful for the extra assistance.

She says that although she has been able to save her February benefits, she is worried about other people she talks to at work who might not have been able to do the same.

MARIAH ROUT-SMITH: I know that it’s harder for other people right now, trying to budget all of that and keep track of it and trying to stretch that for such a long period of time. Especially because a lot of people don’t get enough benefits to actually cover what they need. Then having these extra benefits, they are going to end up spending them because they actually need that [amount], and now they have it. But then they aren’t going to have any a few weeks from now.

Rita Davis, a 71-year-old grandmother on disability, counts on the benefits.  She’s worried about elderly S.N.A.P. recipients who can’t continue to work.

RITA DAVIS: I don’t want them to pay for everything that I have, I’m too proud to have somebody do that. But, sometimes you need a little bit of help. And that’s what I thought the government was there for. And you work all your life, and you find out - if you find out you can’t get help… I know what some of these people are going through. They just got elderly and then they were trying to get help, and then they’ve got all these things to pay and they are trying to live on $300-$400 dollars a month. That’s just not doable.

McKee says the S.N.A.P. program is an incredibly efficient federal program with proven results, helping those living below the poverty line with the food needed to help feed their families.

MCKEE: The reason food banks are so concerned about the S.N.A.P gap is that S.N.A.P. provides 12 times as much food to people in need as food banks do. America’s food banks provide enough food for 4.5 billion meals - S.N.A.P. accounts for 12 times that much food. So any disruption in S.N.A.P. benefits means people have nowhere else to go, will turn to food banks, and we will quickly be overwhelmed. We can’t food bank our way out of that kind of crisis, if in fact S.N.A.P. is entirely suspended.

Food bank employees are hoping that Congress and the President can reach a solution to the federal budget in time to avoid another shutdown in mid-February, because they understand that the negative ripple effects of a government shutdown happen long after the government reopens.