RICHMOND — Virginia residents will soon lose Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program COVID-19 emergency allotments, something community organizers say will impact food security for thousands. Enrollment increased from 330,000 state participants when the program launched in March 2020 to 470,000 current participants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
SNAP is a federal nutrition assistance program that provides benefits to qualifying low-income individuals and families, according to the government. In the past, the program was previously known as "food stamps." The final issuance of emergency allotments will take place on Feb. 16.
Qualified households saw an increase to the maximum allotment if they did not already receive full benefits, according to the initial approval for the SNAP increase.
The USDA grants waivers that allow select states to issue emergency allotments of benefits, according to the agency. These waivers are based on a public health emergency declaration by the Department of Health and Human Services and are applicable when a state declares an emergency or disaster, such as the pandemic.
The Neighborhood Resource Center of Greater Fulton is a nonprofit organization that provides nutritional, financial and educational support to low-income individuals across Richmond, according to the center.
Breanne Armbrust, executive director of the NRC, said she has seen firsthand how increased SNAP benefits impact the community.
When benefits increase, there are less people who need food pantry bags, according to Armbrust.
“It allows them to have some flexibility with their funds to be able to do other things that are just as essential as eating,” Armbrust said.
The impact of reduced SNAP benefits is going to be “catastrophic,” in part due to the rising cost of food, according to Armbrust.
“With the inflation that’s happening that’s based on corporations raising prices of food, like the grocery stores raising prices, I just don’t know what people are supposed to do,” Armbrust said.
It takes approximately six months for a person in economic struggle to be able to adjust their finances to offset the rising cost of expenses, according to Armbrust.
“This notification is so last minute that I don’t believe it’s going to allow people to adjust their budgets to be able to prepare for that,” Armbrust said.
Virginia’s SNAP emergency allotments have been extended 34 times since the initial two-month request, according to the USDA.
Virginia residents have experienced much lower food insecurity over the course of the pandemic because of increased SNAP benefits, according to Eddie Oliver, the executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.
The Federation of Virginia Food Banks is a nonprofit state association that works with the seven regional food banks in Virginia to improve nutrition security, according to Oliver.
“We know the second they end and they go back to their previous levels, then we know we’re going to see that in our pantry lines that we’re going to be affected for sure,” Oliver said.
Oliver said that while food insecurity is not a new problem, the pandemic has put the issue in the spotlight. The “stronger safety net” for food insecurity present during the pandemic worked well, according to Oliver.
“We know the expiration of emergency allotments will create a hunger cliff in Virginia for our 900,000 neighbors who rely on SNAP to keep food on the table,” Oliver stated in an email.
Virginia’s seven regional food banks are preparing for a “surge in demand” for food assistance, according to Oliver.
John Jones, food insecurity researcher and assistant professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Environmental Studies, advocated for expanded SNAP benefits in Virginia. Increased benefits are a “powerful” way to mitigate the worst effects of poverty, Jones said.
“When you’re expanding the amount of money that people are receiving or expanding the number of people that can receive this, that’s going to positively impact food security and negatively impact food insecurity,” Jones said.
Virginians can find local food bank information on the Virginia Food Bank Locator, a service provided by the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.
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