Increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for low-income New Yorkers, which began during the early days of the pandemic, are set to expire at the end of February, potentially making Long Island's food insecurity crisis even worse, according to experts.
Emergency allotments of the federal program, known as SNAP, have been in place since April 2020, shortly after the start of COVID-19 lockdowns. Recipients of SNAP, previously known as food stamps, received either an extra $95 per month, or benefits up to the maximum amount for their household size, whichever amount was greater.
SNAP benefits will return to pre-pandemic levels in March after a December congressional spending package ended the emergency allotments, citing concerns from some lawmakers that the funds could discourage job seekers. The benefit amount will once again be based on a recipient's household income rather than household size.
More using Long Island food pantries
Paule Pachter, chief executive of Long Island Cares-The Harry Chapin Food Bank in Hauppauge, said the increased cost of groceries, near record inflation, and high gasoline and energy costs are already driving more individuals to food pantries for assistance.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for low-income New Yorkers are set to expire at the end of February. They have been in place since April 2020, shortly after the start of the COVID-19 lockdowns.
- SNAP recipients received either an extra $95 per month, or benefits up to the maximum amount for their household size, whichever amount was greater.
- The high cost of groceries may drive more people to food banks once the extra benefits expire, a Long Island food bank officials said. The outlook is particularly dire for those receiving both Social Security and SNAP benefits.
"And the expectation is that it most probably will continue," Pachter said. "The fact that these temporary increases in benefits are going to end is clearly going to result in an increased number of people going to the food pantries … The need is still there."
Although monthly SNAP benefits have grown from 2022 levels, it may not be enough for families struggling to put food on the table.
Last year, Long Island Cares assisted 114,656 people, a 59% increase from 2021 when it helped 72,153 individuals, while the number of individual meals distributed by the food bank increased by 64%, Pachter said.
Also, he added, the amount of food purchased by Long Island Cares, which is sent to 325 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters across the Island, jumped from 3.5 million pounds in 2021 to 4.1 million pounds in 2022.
"People get a SNAP EBT card at the beginning of the month, and the card is supposed to last the entire 30 days," Pachter said. "But we're seeing people who have gone through the SNAP benefit within two weeks because of the cost of goods."
In 2022, food prices increased by 9.9%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food prices are predicted to increase another 7.1% this year, the USDA said in its recent food price outlook.
The outlook is particularly dire for those receiving both Social Security and SNAP benefits.
Earlier this month, Social Security benefits increased 8.7% as part of an annual cost of living adjustment to keep up with rising inflation.
But since Social Security is counted as income, some families could see their food benefits decrease as they move into a higher income bracket, according to the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which operates the federally-funded SNAP program in New York.
More than 2.8 million New Yorkers statewide, representing 1.6 million households, rely on SNAP, state officials said. That figure is up 2.1% from November 2021.
"These temporary additional food benefits have helped hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers avoid food insecurity at a time when so many are struggling with household budgets that have been stretched thin," Gov. Kathy Hochul said Tuesday as she announced $234 million in emergency SNAP allotments for January.
Even before the pandemic, SNAP benefits were failing to keep up with the high cost of living in New York, said Randi Shubin Dresner, president and chief executive of Island Harvest, a Melville food bank.
Dresner called the enhanced temporary benefits "transformational" for many Long Islanders but said the end of the program would reverse years of progress.
"It's sunsetting and taking people back to where we were before, which was incredibly low and inappropriate for today's standard of living," she said. " … The bottom line is that we as a society have needed to look at our SNAP benefits and make some adjustments so that it is commensurate with the standard of living and with each of the different regions."