As emergency food aid ends, Just Food braces for a ‘significant’ local impact
photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World
Another pandemic relief program has come to an end, and the leader of Just Food expects that Lawrence will be profoundly affected.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits through emergency allotments to help mitigate the country’s hunger crisis. But in Kansas, along with 31 other states and three U.S. territories, SNAP benefits — formerly known as food stamps — are reverting back to their pre-pandemic levels. The other 18 states had already phased out the extra benefits by January.
That’s because when Congress passed the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill funding the federal government for the 2023 fiscal year known as the Consolidated Appropriations Act at the end of 2022, it required states to end the additional SNAP benefits made possible via emergency allotments after the February 2023 issuance distributed this month.
Since March of 2020, emergency funds have ensured that all households received the maximum SNAP payment for their household size, or received an additional $95 per month if they already were eligible for that much aid. That means that every household in the 35 states and territories that are phasing out emergency allotments will receive at least $95 less per month in benefits — or worse, in Kansas’ case. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an average of 97,000 households per month received SNAP benefits in Kansas during 2022, and each household will see an average reduction of $196 per month as emergency allotments run dry.
The effects will be significant, Just Food Director Brett Hartford told the Journal-World earlier this week, and the food bank is already bracing itself.
“The pandemic was daunting on its own,” Hartford said. “Now, this directly affects the community in the way that we are tasked with meeting their needs. We’re expecting it to be bad, honestly.”
A 2021 U.S. Census American Community Survey provides more context for the numbers locally. The survey notes that about 8% of the roughly 50,000 households in Douglas County — or about 3,800 households — were receiving SNAP benefits in 2021. Hartford said that while Just Food doesn’t require patrons to identify whether they receive benefits to be eligible for food donations, it does ask, and the food bank’s informal survey breaks down the household group into anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 individuals in the county who are currently eligible for and receiving SNAP benefits.
Using those numbers in the worst-case scenario, Hartford said the community was looking at upward of $1 million less in spending power at the grocery store as extra benefits cease.
“When you start putting it in (terms of) numbers like that, that’s when it starts to really sink in that it’s less money going into the grocery stores that are currently in our community,” Hartford said.
Just Food currently spends about $40,000 per month on food purchases, and Hartford said leadership was expecting that wouldn’t be enough to bridge the gap. That monthly cost is going to rise by 20%, to about $50,000, because of the SNAP change.
That all comes as the food bank is already seeing a significant number of visitors, including 350 new first-time visitors in January and 392 in February. In total, Just Food saw nearly 10,000 different individuals visit during those two months, and Hartford said he expected visitor numbers to increase even further.
“We’re expecting this to trickle down to every area, not just people coming in here,” Hartford said. “More people coming to our Cruising Cupboard that’s in remote locations, especially Baldwin, (Lecompton) and Eudora … We’ll expect that our delivery numbers will go up, as well.”
The biggest pressure, he said, is on Just Food’s full-time staff of 10. The food bank spends as much money as it possibly can to supplement the food that’s on the shelves, but it relies heavily on donations from the public to keep feeding folks in need. Hartford hopes that the community will engage with that challenge and join the food bank in being a part of the solution for the “deep need” that’s fast approaching.
Just Food is taking some other steps internally to mitigate how severe the SNAP change will be. For example, Hartford said Just Food’s board approved posting a job listing for a grant writer position earlier this week. The food bank is also planning to debut a “food justice” program in April, which will be intended to help pull in more partner agencies. It will include an interactive map that will show folks which restaurants and grocery stores in the community already donate to Just Food regularly or have a donation barrel set up in their storefronts. The food bank will provide an information sheet for community members to take to businesses that aren’t partnering yet to encourage them to get involved.
“We have a lot of proactive stuff coming out to help engage the community around what the need is, why it’s there and the information systems to just inform the community — our entire community — why the need is so high, and then solutions for them to be able to do something about it,” Hartford said.
More information about how to support Just Food is available on the food bank’s website.