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In the last three years, households eligible for food assistance received at least $95 more per month as part of a pandemic-era increase to combat hunger. But Wednesday, those benefits will expire, meaning a smaller monthly food budget for nearly 30 million Americans. William Brangham visited a food bank in rural Virginia that’s gearing up to meet the increased need this cut will likely trigger.
In the last three years, households eligible for food assistance received at least $95 more per month as part of a pandemic era increase that was designed to combat hunger.
But, tomorrow, those benefits will expire nationwide, meaning a smaller monthly food budget for nearly 30 million Americans.
William Brangham spent yesterday at a food bank in rural Virginia that's gearing up to meet the increased need this cut will likely trigger.
It's another busy week at the Fauquier Community Food Bank in Warrenton, Virginia. About 25 families a day come here to stock up on free groceries.
You're all set here. Tony is going to take you.
Thirty-old-year-old Tiffany Robinson visits the food bank to help stretch the money she receives through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, the very benefits that will soon be cut back.
Tiffany Robinson, SNAP Recipient:
That's really going to affect my budget because I'm going to have to come out of pocket even more what than I do now to get groceries.
SNAP, which used to be called food stamps, is the Department of Agriculture program that provides monthly stipends for lower-income Americans to spend on groceries.
In March 2020, Congress passed temporary SNAP increases to help people weather the pandemic-economy, but last December passed another law ending those increases. So, tomorrow, Americans in 32 states and other jurisdictions will see those extra SNAP benefits expire; 18 states have already rolled them back.
A 2022 Urban Institute study found these emergency allotments kept more than four million people above the poverty line in the last quarter of 2021, reducing poverty by nearly 10 percent. The coming reduction in SNAP benefits will be different for different households, depending on their circumstances. But, on average, a family of three will lose nearly $200 per month from their benefits.
The cuts will reduce payments to about $6 per person per day. Robinson says that's not enough to feed her children, and she will need to depend on this food bank even more.
You know, like, I am panicking a little bit. Like, I really was when I got that message. I was like, so, what am I going to do next month? It really sent me into a stressful state, because I'm worried about my children.
My children eat more than I do. I will probably have to come here more often or try to find other outlets, so I can get food for my children.
Food pantries like this are pressed on two sides, rising demand for their help, but rising costs constraining how much they can provide. Staples like eggs are up over 70 percent compared to last year.
We have got tomato soup this month. We have got applesauce, mac and cheese.
Most of these goods come via donations from local grocery stores or bought with local donations, or proceeds from their thrift store next door.
Sharon Ames is the executive director of the Fauquier Community Food Bank. And we talked yesterday about her community and what these cuts might meet for them.
Who is it that you serve? Who are the people that come through your door?
Sharon Ames, Executive Director, Fauquier Community Food Bank:
It is all walks of life.
And I will go back to the thrift store side. I have people now who used to shop over there who know their money went to buy food here, but now they have had to come to me and say: Times have changed. Gas is high. Food is high. I need your help.
We help the homeless. It's everybody.
We're here talking to you because the pandemic SNAP benefit extension is about to expire.
Do you have a sense of what that's going to mean for the people of this county?
We are going to feel it. They're going to feel it.
They are starting to call now and ask us questions about if we can expand and they can get more food if need be. And we always answer, yes, we will do the very, very best we can.
From what I am hearing and what I'm understanding, it can be around $95 to 100-and-some dollars a month. But, again, that depends on their family, how big their family is, how much they get, to what their cut will be.
And for people who may not appreciate the circumstances of the families that you help, $95 to $100 a month, how significant is that?
That's huge. That's $25 a week. That's huge. That's milk. That's bread. That's peanut butter. That's hamburger. It's huge. That's big to them.
Is it your sense that most of the families that are going to see a cut in their benefits are going to be OK?
They will be OK. They will manage. They will survive. They will probably make an extra phone call to us and say, look, I have got three or four more days in a month to go. I'm out of food. Can you give me food? And we will.
I believe in my community, and I believe, if we reach out and say we need help, that it will be there. I think the other thing we have to look at is, down the road, think about summer, when the children are out of school, no free lunches, no free breakfast.
There are some people in Congress who argue that the SNAP program, the food stamp program, is too expensive, and this pandemic extension, bump-up was too much, and that we have to dial those costs down.
I mean, as someone who sees the beneficiaries of this program, what do you think of that argument?
We are going to see children who are not going to function in school because they are not fed properly, they go to bed hungry. We are going to see elderly that give up their medicine, diabetic medicine, whatever it may be.
The choice between food and medicine is too great.
Absolutely. We're going to — it is. It is going to affect everybody.
And I'm not really sure how Congress is coming up with the fact that it's too much money, when you're going to feed people and keep them healthy and make them part of our society.
You think that's not the right place to cut?
No. And I know the argument is — that's why when I say that we qualify people, a lot of people view a food pantry as you just go in and say: Hey, I want food.
It's not like that. We do qualify you. SNAP does too. So, it is a program that is — has rules.
You are meeting people with demonstrated needs.
You see somebody come to you, and you give them a can of tuna, and they hold it to them and say: "Oh, my God, Sharon, this is four meals."
No, it's not. It's one. That will make you stop and think. And, at our level, we see that, we hear that. Congress don't.
All right, Sharon Ames, thank you so much for talking with us.
Thank you very much.
Watch the Full Episode
William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Layla Quran is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour. She was previously a foreign affairs reporter and producer.
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