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End to pandemic food assistance hitting people hard in Washington state

caption: C'zar Carter-Alexander shops at the Ballard Food Bank on Monday, April 3, 2023.
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C'zar Carter-Alexander shops at the Ballard Food Bank on Monday, April 3, 2023.
KUOW photo/Kate Walters

In March, nearly a million people across Washington lost the extra food assistance they were getting during the pandemic.

The end to emergency increases in federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for low-income families and individuals comes at a time when grocery bills are soaring.

The boost in benefits over the past few years has been a silver lining, and often a lifeline, in the pandemic for many people.

Two months after those extra emergency payments ended in Washington state, it’s having an impact on people and the safety net that helps fill the gaps.

Higher demand at food banks

Early in the month, C’zar Carter-Alexander is used to the food bank being less crowded.

But since SNAP benefits have decreased to pre-pandemic levels, he said it’s busier than he’s ever seen it.

The lobby of the Ballard Food Bank is standing room only, filled with individuals, families, and pets.

People are waiting for their turn to go in and shop.

“Because of the extra crowd, I had to get up and come here at 10 a.m. this morning to get a ticket so that I wouldn't have to stand out here ‘til 3 o'clock this afternoon,” Carter-Alexander said.

The food bank opened to hand out tickets at 10 a.m. He arrived at 10:05 a.m. He got ticket number 55.

During the pandemic, Carter-Alexander was receiving $250 per month in food stamps. Now, he’s back down to about $150 per month.

Carter-Alexander said that covers about a week’s worth of groceries at the supermarket.

For some, the decrease in benefits is much larger. Some families were receiving hundreds of dollars more than normal with emergency increases and have now lost those additions to their grocery budget.

According to the state Department of Social and Health Services, Carter-Alexander is one of about 520,000 households, representing roughly 900,000 to one million individuals, who were receiving additional food assistance during the pandemic.

For Carter-Alexander, that translated to less stress and more time.

The extra funds didn’t completely eliminate his need to visit food banks over the past couple of years, but it did mean fewer trips.

"When they ramped up, instead of going every week, I was able to then go maybe only once every 10 to 14 days,” he said.

Now that he, and many others, are readjusting to the usual level of benefit payments, Carter-Alexander is back to going every week and that’s time consuming, especially because demand at the food bank has increased.

“What used to be an easy in and out is now a several hours long ordeal,” he said. “I have to plan my week around it because I'm a gig worker, so if I'm going to go into the food bank, I know that I'm not going to work that day."

High demand, high prices, lower availability

When Carter-Alexander finally makes it inside the Ballard Food Bank, he’s thrilled to see sugar on the shelves.

According to him, that’s a rarity.

The food bank looks much like any other small market. It has bins of fresh produce, shelves stocked with canned goods, crepe mix, pasta, and other staples, fresh flowers near the check out and bagging area.

The refrigerated section has a selection of dairy and meats.

Carter-Alexander picks up a cheesecake, a favorite for him. And some treats for Joelson, his picky Maine Coon, Siamese mix cat.

He likes to shop here. He said it's dignified, a good experience.

But even early in the day, there are sections of shelves that are bare.

With the rising cost of food and increasing demand, food banks are struggling to stay stocked.

Carter-Alexander now not only visits the food bank every week, he has to visit two of them to find what he needs.

"I used to be able to tell people, you can come in anytime, and we're going to have the same amount of food, you know, doesn't matter what time of day you show up. And it's not the same anymore,” said Jen Muzia, executive director of the Ballard Food Bank.

When benefit levels dropped in March, Muzia said the food bank immediately saw an increase in demand with 483 new households coming through. That’s on top of increases in demand the food bank saw during the pandemic.

“We're running out of food. When that many more people come through, that demand, we don't have the supply," she said.

The Ballard Food Bank is not alone in seeing a recent increase in demand.

Pandemic assistance dwindles

Christina Wong is director of public policy and advocacy for Northwest Harvest, a nonprofit that supports hundreds of food banks and meal programs across the state.

She said food banks in their network saw a spike in visits early in the pandemic but started reporting a decrease in visits as federal assistance — like emergency increases in SNAP benefits, universal school meals, and the expanded child tax credit — began to roll out.

“As those federal resources were ebbing away piece by piece, you could see numbers tend to tick back up again,” Wong said.

Specifically, when food assistance decreased, Wong said one food bank in Eastern Washington reported a corresponding increase in need of roughly 16%.

Muzia with the Ballard Food Bank said her organization is struggling with high food prices and supply chain issues.

Compared to a few years ago, she said it’s costing five times more to keep the food bank stocked.

The food bank's budget is raised mainly through individual donations. Aside from addressing hunger, the organization also provides some social services to clients.

State lawmakers recently passed a bill designed to help fill the gap. It added nearly $30 million for food banks and other programs. That’s a fix that will help for a couple of months.

The state’s new budget also puts additional funds towards food assistance, although the allocations fell short of the requests advocates initially made.

At the end of the day, it’s tough for the state to replace all the various federal funding streams that poured in during the pandemic to help people struggling to stay afloat that have now begun to disappear.

Multiple assistance programs, including rent assistance and expanded unemployment, in conjunction with the emergency increases to food benefits helped to lift many people out of poverty during the pandemic, at least while that funding lasted.

For some that meant less stress, or a pause to difficult decisions about which basic needs to meet.

As the increases in aid have petered out, Christina Wong with Northwest Harvest said it makes sense that more people need help accessing food.

“It's food that is usually skipped in order to be able to save money to put towards paying for your rent, to pay for medications, pay for that child care so that your child has someplace safe to go while you're working,” she said.

Food insecurity remains an issue

Food insecurity increased across Washington during the pandemic, and it remains above pre-pandemic levels today.

A survey conducted by local researchers showed that nearly half the households surveyed had experienced food insecurity in the past month.

The survey was designed to over-index on households with lower incomes and those using food assistance and was conducted before emergency SNAP benefit levels ended.

While food insecurity in the state remains an issue, officials say the emergency increase in food assistance made a difference.

“Our snapshot, interestingly, did show that people who were receiving SNAP participation were actually expressing in some regards that they did not perceive their household was food insecure, and that was a change. And so that tells us that there may be a sense of stabilization,” said Shawna Beese, assistant professor of rural health promotion at Washington State University, and a member of the research team.

Babs Roberts, is with the state Department of Social and Health Services and, among other things, is the SNAP director for the state.

She agrees with what the research shows may have occurred while additional food assistance was in place.

Roberts believes that additional assistance had a stabilizing impact on households while it was in place and may have created sufficient stabilization for some to be impactful in the long term.

It is still hard to say for certain whether the short-term benefits created any greater, long-term stability for people. But that’s a question researchers are interested in answering.

In the meantime, Roberts said the pandemic period did yield some lessons about what the boosts meant.

"One of the things I would say we saw is that people were able to purchase healthy, nutritious foods at a time when prices were really fluctuating quite a lot,” Roberts said.

“For some folks, it really allowed for them to eat better, to be able to purchase some of those more expensive nutritious foods.”

The reductions, Roberts said, are hitting people hard, especially older adults and people with disabilities.

"I think the decrease of these benefits, and as fast as it happened, has really thrown many families and individuals into chaos and struggling at a time when the cost of everything has gone up,” Roberts said. “That's really difficult."

C’zare Carter-Alexander is a little more blunt in his criticism of the way benefits were rolled back.

“It should be criminal for them to do that, to just pull the rug out from underneath people without considering the fact that prices are through the roof,” he said.

Carter-Alexander places blame at the federal level. He questions why lawmakers would lift millions of children out of poverty only temporarily.

For him, the pain point is less about the recent drop in his personal food budget and more about when and how it was done.

“Why would you choose to do that now when you know that food prices are through the roof?" he asked.

Coming out of the pandemic, Carter-Alexander said it's time to increase food assistance benefits permanently.

Lawmakers in D.C. are considering SNAP levels this year as they work to renew the national Farm Bill.

While the U.S. spent staggering amounts of money on pandemic-era assistance, and poverty fell during that time, lawmakers and others are split on whether a continuation of such aid would constitute good policy.

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