story by Ryan Saylor
Americans depending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will have fewer funds available on Nov. 1 to purchase food for themselves and their families, with Arkansans set to lose $52 million through September 2014.
But while much of the cuts to federal programs during the last two weeks has had to do with the federal shutdown, cuts to SNAP have been in the works for sometime and will take place on Nov. 1, regardless of whether the federal government is up and operational again, according to Amy Webb, director of communications at the Arkansas Department of Human Services.
"During the stimulus funding time period, SNAP benefits were increased," she said. "That is ending. But it was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act."
According to Webb, the stimulus increased the amount of funding individuals depending on SNAP could receive through a method that left recipients open to this upcoming change.
"Every year … the federal government can do a cost of living increase for SNAP beneficiaries," she said. "During the stimulus, they did several years of increases at once to let people struggling to make it. And no additional cost of living increases were given."
Arkansas will lose about $52 million in federal support from Nov. 1, through September 2014, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Washington D.C., a nonpartisan research and policy institute.
With the reduction set to end, Webb said it would amount to about $10 per month per beneficiary less in SNAP benefits, or about $30 a month for a family of three.
For the fiscal year ending 2012, Webb said 293,522 SNAP cases were handled by the DHS, providing benefits to 693,564 people, roughly 23.52% of the state's population, or nearly the population of Detroit.
Webb said the DHS is doing its best to notify beneficiaries of the Nov. 1 end date.
"We'll begin notifying beneficiaries of the change and we'll provide them some education on stretching their grocery budget."
Ken Kupchick, director of marketing and Development at the River Valley Regional Food Bank in Fort Smith, said he fears many SNAP beneficiaries are not prepared for the drop in benefits and it could be detrimental to an individual's nutrition.
"My concern is – I know what will take a first hit in the budget is proteins," he said. "If you have $36 less in a month, it will impact spending on chicken and hamburger and other lean meats and push them into high cholesterol, high sugar food because they are cheaper and stretch a budget further. So my concern is from a nutrition standpoint."
In an e-mail, Kupchick said a gradual phase-out would have been a better way to end the additional SNAP benefits.
"As a result, instead of a gradual phase-out, all SNAP participants will see their benefits abruptly end on Nov. 1, 2013, when the ARRA benefit boost expires," he wrote.
What the River Valley Regional Food Bank and other non-profits providing food assistance are unsure of now is how the end of the additional SNAP benefits will impact their ability to provide food to individuals and families in need.
"The question for us as a food bank is do people recognize the problem immediately or is it a slow creep? Do they slowly discover that their money isn't going far enough?" Kupchick said by phone. "The problem for the food bank is work with donated products. We're not prepared for a rush of need, just as pantries aren't necessarily prepared for that either."
He said while the Nov. 1 end date may catch beneficiaries off guard, his organization was doing the best they could to prepare. But he said other food banks may not have been aware of what could be an onslaught of people in need.
"In the short term, we've sent out notices in both English and Spanish to all of our pantries."
Kupchick said he is hoping families are prepared, but he knows for many, tough decisions are ahead.
"I worry about families with a cart full of food and all of the sudden don't have the money to pay for it and what comes out of the cart (as a result)," he said. "I'm afraid it will be those higher priced items, like milk. And I hate to see families relying on high carbo foods and canned foods ready to eat as a way of finding their nutrition. It doesn't do anybody good to live solely out of cans."