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Early arrival of SNAP benefits creates confusion, challenges for food banks

Posted at 4:53 PM, Jan 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-21 14:05:38-05

CLEVELAND — Entering its 27th day, the partial government shutdown has brought a massive logistical and communications challenge for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. The USDA disbursed its remaining $4.8 billion in SNAP benefits — still known as food stamps — to recipients for the month of February, which is more than two weeks early. The early disbursement of these benefits has Greater Cleveland Food Bank staff and volunteers working in overdrive to try to encourage recipients to not only budget their benefits wisely but also remind them the benefits run completely dry by the end of next month.

Roughly 1.4 million Ohioans participate in SNAP and received their February benefits on Wednesday. The state typically doles out the SNAP benefits on even-numbered days between the second and 20th day of each month. The Greater Cleveland Food Bank has been handing out flyers to SNAP recipients this week, reminding them they will not receive additional benefits for the month of February.

The early benefits are due to the USDA finding an overlooked budgetary provision that required benefits to be distributed by January 20, which falls on the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial holiday weekend. Since the benefits were handed out early, it could mean beneficiaries will not receive additional funding for 40 days or longer, depending on when the government reopens.

As it stands now, there is no additional funding for March benefits. Nearly 40 million low-income Americans are enrolled in the SNAP program. The federal government doles out SNAP benefit money to the states, who, in turn, disburse the money to counties. Although SNAP applications are processed through the county, the GCFB provides assistance with SNAP benefit applications.

“The SNAP program is our country’s first line of defense in the fight against hunger. It is what keeps people from going hungry day to day all across America,” said Kristin Warzocha, the president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. “We don’t know what happens if the shut down lasts beyond [February]. The SNAP program provides 12 times as many meals nationally as every food bank in country put together. We cannot make up for the loss of the SNAP program.”

Put simply, for every meal that every food bank across the country provides, the SNAP program provides 12 meals. For reference, the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and its network of food banks provided 58 million meals in 2018.

Warzocha said the impact is immeasurable.

“SNAP doesn’t last all month long. It may last a client for a couple of weeks. In addition to the personal dollars that [SNAP recipients] are trying to stretch as much as they can, emergency food centers then step in,” Warzocha said. “If the SNAP program runs out in the month of March, we know the clients are going to be turning to us and our partner agencies for well more than a handful of day's supply of food. That’s an enormous challenge to meet that need. We cannot increase our distribution by 12 times overnight.”

Greater Cleveland Food Bank 3

Warzocha said food bank staff and volunteers have doubled-down on their fundraising and donation collection efforts from the agency’s 900 sponsors. The GCFB has reached out to all of those sponsors to apprise them of the potentially dire situation.

The agency’s call center has also been inundated with questions from SNAP recipients and federal employees seeking assistance. The uncertainty weighs heavy on everyone, Warzocha said.

“It doesn’t allow people to plan to know what to do next. Nonprofits are in the same situation,” Warzocha said. “The fact is that the need in our community is growing.”

On Thursday, the GCFB hosted it’s monthly produce distribution event. On average, the food bank hands out fresh produce to roughly 800 families. However, with it being the first event since federal employees went without paycheck, the GCFB was expecting to hand out fresh produce to more than 1000 families.