Emergency food distribution groups in New Jersey are warning of a spike in demand and “catastrophic” consequences when a federal pandemic-era program that boosted monthly food benefits ends in March.
That’s why some lawmakers want to permanently increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — also known as SNAP, or sometimes referred to as “food stamps” — using state funds. They’re looking to get a bill passed before the federal money runs out.
With the additional COVID-19 federal funds, families were receiving a minimum of $95 a month under SNAP.
“People have had these benefits for three years, they've had emergency assistance benefits. So to suddenly say, ‘Now they're going away,’ — it's really catastrophic in so many ways,” said Adele LaTourette, senior director of policy and advocacy for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey. “It's just so wrong,”
LaTourette said though state officials have known of the looming deadline, for many SNAP recipients, the change will feel like it happened overnight. She said she recently told a small food pantry that didn’t know the extra benefit was ending.
“Literally, jaws dropped when I told them. I think people are going to have a very hard time understanding it,” she said.
When the extra federal funds run out at the end of next month, eligible families in New Jersey will still receive at least $50 a month, after Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law last year to raise the SNAP monthly minimum, up from the federally-set minimum of $23 for this year. New Jersey was the first state to pass a bill setting its own minimum payment level, anticipating the emergency federal funding would eventually end.
But food insecurity advocates say $50 a month is half of what families have received during the pandemic — and they expect demand at food pantries to surge if the benefit is not restored.
“Imagine a senior or a vet who is on a fixed income and then they're facing these prices, these skyrocketing prices in the grocery stores. Their fixed income hasn't changed, so now they're going maybe from two grocery bags to one,” said Julie Kinner, vice president of operations for Table to Table, a nonprofit working in North Jersey to rescue food from restaurants and grocery stores and deliver it to those in need.
There are nearly 400,000 families and 770,000 individuals who receive SNAP benefits in New Jersey, according to the Department of Human Services, which administers the program.
“We understood the extra SNAP benefits were temporary, but we also recognize the impact this will have on New Jerseyans who have benefitted from greater assistance over the last three years,” Department of Human Service Commissioner Sarah Adelman said in a press release regarding the change in benefits.
She urged households to check their benefits, to be prepared before grocery shopping, and pointed residents to nj211.org for information on other resources.
SNAP recipients will also be mailed a letter next month with their new benefit amounts. Residents can also check online at njfamiliesfirst.com, using the Connect EBT mobile app or by calling 800-997-3333.
On Thursday, a bill introduced by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, to raise SNAP monthly minimums to $95 cleared the Assembly. The bill is now pending a vote in the full Senate. But Coughlin said he’s confident the bill will get enough votes across both parties to pass.
“When we look around and we see that kind of need up close and personal, because it happens in every community, then you look at yourself and you say, yeah, I have to be supportive of this,” he said.
Residents can apply for SNAP online or by calling their county board of social services.