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With emergency SNAP benefits ending, food banks 'cannot make up that large of a difference'

Shelves are stocked with goods and commodities at a food bank.
Lance Cheung
Public Domain / USDA
Shelves are stocked with goods and commodities at a food bank.

Massachusetts residents will find less money available on their benefit cards to buy food, following a decision by the federal government to end the SNAP emergency allotment that had been in place during the COVID pandemic.

But recipients can't just stop eating, and food prices remain high. So the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance suggests families use a food pantry as a stopgap. The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts is one of the groups across the state that supplies food pantries.

Christina Maxwell, Food Bank of Western Massachusetts: So this is a really terrible position that the federal government is putting families in who are trying to feed themselves and will be taking away significant money from families who receive SNAP. And that is going to happen in March. The last emergency allotment payment that families will receive will be on March 2nd. And at that point, they'll lose those emergency allotments going forward. So, because of that, we certainly expect the emergency food network — food pantries, meal sites — to see a lot more people coming in, because, as you said, you can't stop eating.

If people are not able to afford food, which is getting harder and harder with prices the way they are these days, we certainly expect to see more people coming to our doors and asking for help. And we will do everything we can to help people. We will be prepared for that.

But the emergency food network is not capable of making up the difference in SNAP payments. There's approximately $95 million a month that's going to be lost from Massachusetts. And the emergency food network cannot make up that large of a difference.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: So, when this press release came out late last week and the reverberations are beginning this week, is that when you found out as well?

We found out only slightly earlier. This happened due to the budget legislation that was passed two days before Christmas by Congress. Once we were able to learn the details of what was in that legislation, that's when we learned of this cut.

We are continuing to do what we do. We're bringing in food. We're talking with our food pantries about the fact that this is happening. We're trying to get the word out both to our pantries and to the general public and people who use SNAP, so that they're aware that this is coming and at least won't be confused. They might be very upset, which is totally understandable, but we don't want them to be confused.

I imagine this will affect some communities harder than others. You know, if you zoom out a bit and you think about the entire state, how does western Massachusetts fit into what will happen come March?

Well, you know, one of the things that's so unfortunate is that communities of color already face food insecurity at a much higher rate than white communities do. And that became even more true during the pandemic. The disparity grew during the pandemic, and therefore, this change is going to hit communities of color harder than it does predominantly white communities.

That's another layer of bad in this policy. It's going to be true across the state. I can't say that there's sort of a regional difference in how this is going to be absorbed, because this is going to affect every single SNAP recipient across the state.

This was a federal decision. Could this have a legislative fix from Massachusetts?

Well, yes and no. There's no way really that Massachusetts could come up with the amount of money that would be necessary to replace these lost SNAP benefits for everybody. So that kind of a fix is not really possible. But what is possible is creating or bolstering other programs that help families who are facing food insecurity. So, things like expanding universal free school meals for every child in school, which are in place this ... current school year, but are due not to be in place starting with the next school year. And we would very much like to see that program just put in place permanently so that every child in school can have a lunch. That would go a long way to helping families.

And we're also working on legislation that will increase and make more permanent the HIP program, the Healthy Incentives Program, which is a benefit that SNAP recipients receive to incentivize them to purchase fruits and vegetables from local producers and specific vendors at farmers markets.

So those are just two examples. We're working on a lot of other things too. So, there are some legislative actions that could take place that would help families for sure. There's not going to be a legislative action to make up this particular loss of these particular benefits.

Disclosure: The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts is among the many organizations that financially support NEPM. The newsroom operates independently of the station's fundraising departments.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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