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A key pandemic food benefit is set to end, putting some seniors at risk

Carmela Bolding, left, helps Kimberly Bungard sign up for the monthly groceries offered by the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Doretha Harrison, 67, tries to avoid fatty foods and stick to fresh produce and lean proteins because of her diabetes and other health concerns. On a fixed income, she also must stretch her household food budget for the times her grandson lives with her in Southeast Washington. The $281 a month she currently receives in SNAP benefits cuts it close.

“By the end of the month, sometimes I run short,” Harrison said, “so I have to make sacrifices.”

After next month, she may have to start making more. That is when a pandemic-related benefit increase for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is scheduled to expire, even though advocates say it will put many SNAP recipients — particularly older ones like Harrison — at a higher risk for food insecurity at a time of increased prices.

Three years ago, when the pandemic hit and the country shut down, the federal government responded with programs that defrayed basic living expenses such as housing and food. Among them was a temporary boost to SNAP benefits, known as emergency allotments, that increased monthly allotments for a single-person household from a minimum of $16 a month to the maximum, now $281 a month, across the board. In March, per the government spending bill recently passed by Congress, that boost will end.

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The emergency allotments were always intended to be temporary, said Stacy Dean, the Department of Agriculture’s deputy undersecretary of food, nutrition, and consumer services. “They’ve been a really powerful tool … during a time of incredible need, and it was proven to work.”

Noting that many pandemic-related assistance programs have expired, she added that the department is working with states to make people aware of available benefits. “We want to make sure that everyone who is eligible hears about it.”

But the reductions will be difficult for many, advocates say, especially since food costs were 12 percent higher in November 2022 than a year earlier, according to federal data. The rate of food insecurity has increased particularly among Black and Hispanic older adults, advocates say.

The expiration of the emergency benefits will translate to “$2.5 to $3 billion in food purchasing power disappearing from the American economy overnight, and impacting the most vulnerable people directly: people of color, children, and seniors,” said Vince Hall, a spokesperson for Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks that serve over 46 million people.

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Minimum payments, those going to people near the upper limit of income eligibility, will decrease to $23 a month, though recipients with less income will get more. Before the pandemic, households that included a senior received an average of $120 a month, according to the Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP at the federal level.

The amounts that seniors receive are often the smallest, Hall said.

“It means they are going to see the biggest reduction in food purchasing power,” he said. Seniors are also more vulnerable because many lack transportation, are still reluctant to congregate at food distribution centers because of covid-19 fears and have fewer options for adding to their incomes. “They’re not going to pick up more hours at work or go get a new job when their SNAP benefits go down,” he said.

Harrison said she expects she will rely more on food banks and eat less healthily once the emergency allotments expire. Before the pandemic, she was receiving $156 a month. “It will be kind of a hardship on me,” she said.

According to an AARP report, nearly 9.5 million adults ages 50 and older are food insecure, and in 2019, 46 percent, or 8.7 million, of all SNAP households included at least one adult age 50 or older.

The reduction in benefits could have ripple effects, said Nicole Heckman, AARP Foundation’s vice president of benefits access programs. For example, some SNAP recipients may decide it is no longer worth doing the paperwork once the benefits decrease and drop out, thus losing their automatic eligibility for other benefits that come through being enrolled in SNAP.

“The average person doesn’t know about this, that by walking away from SNAP they may miss out on easier participation in other assistance programs,” Heckman said.

Food insecurity is also associated with a higher chance of developing serious health issues and with increased health-care costs, especially for older adults with low incomes, according to AARP.

Some states, such as Maryland and New Jersey, have opted to use state funds to supplement the minimum monthly benefit. But the raise only increases the monthly allotments slightly, Heckman said, and won’t offset the reduction in federal dollars.

In 17 states, the benefits have already ended, and food distribution centers in these states are seeing an increase in demand, Heckman said. “We’re hearing about a dramatic rise in first-time clients,” she said.

In the remaining states, food banks and distribution centers are bracing themselves.

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The Capital Area Food Bank, which distributes food through around 400 community organizations in the D.C. metro area, distributed 30 million meals a year before the pandemic; at its height, that rose to 75 million. This year, the number is projected to be 45 million, and the organization is already running ahead of that projection because of inflation, said Radha Muthiah, the organization’s president and CEO.

The District has a high rate of food insecurity for seniors partly because of its cost-of-living increases, she said; many, like Harrison, are on fixed incomes.

“Seniors are cutting down on nutrition in some of their meals, saying, ‘Oh, I’ll have pasta, but I won’t have meat,’ or ‘I’ll not have eggs,’” Muthiah said. “What it means for the food banks is that we are back to ramping up.”

Hall said he hopes Congress will consider extending or reinstating the higher benefits.

“We’re going to be bringing those voices to Washington,” he said, “with the message that for roughly 40 million Americans, the SNAP benefit is literally the difference between malnutrition and nutrition.”

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