Millions of food stamp recipients will get more money to spend on groceries this month.
The monthly benefit boost will come out to about $36 for the average recipient per month, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In other words, a family of four could see nearly $150 more in monthly benefits.
For Jerome and Camilya Singletary of Charlotte, North Carolina, it means being able to afford more meat and other proteins — which translates into more filling and balanced meals to feed their three children, ages 8, 10, and 17.
For Darryl Hardy and Mildred Johnson, also of Charlotte, it means being able to buy more fruits and vegetables. For others, it could mean fewer emergency stops at local food shelters after their monthly SNAP benefit runs out.
The increase to the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — informally known as food stamps — is the largest permanent spike since 2006. It makes good on a 2018 Farm Bill requirement that called for the USDA to re-evaluate the benefit amount by 2022, and requires no new Congressional authorization.
For people and families who have the good fortune of food security, this increase might not seem like that much. The USDA estimates the increase will cost about $20 billion per year.
Based on conversations with about a dozen volunteers and people receiving food at three separate Charlotte food banks in recent weeks, any assistance is meaningful for a family experiencing food insecurity.
“Anything would help,” says Felicia Edwards, who lives in Charlotte and works part-time while raising her four children, ages 6, 4, 1, and 6 months. Edwards said she was in the process of applying for SNAP benefits while visiting a Charlotte mobile food pantry with her four children in early September.
The pandemic has made things even more difficult for many people. Jerome and Camilya Singletary say their weekly grocery budget has been in competition with new pandemic expenses like masks and cleaning supplies. For Edwards, there is a constant struggle to feed her family while paying bills and buying such essentials as diapers.
More than 42 million Americans who currently use the SNAP program stand to benefit from the increase. But experts say others who could benefit are unaware of the program at all. Meanwhile, the program’s complexity and the difficulty many people have signing up for it are enough to deter countless others.
Here’s what people experiencing food insecurity should know about the increase, and how to apply if you might be eligible but haven’t signed up.
What Are SNAP Benefits and How Do They Work?
SNAP is administered by the USDA, and benefits are based on a theoretical grocery bill to feed a family of four an assortment of healthy but low-price foods. This theoretical calculation hasn’t increased since 2006, and this month’s increase represents the largest since 1975.
The revised calculation also takes into account new dietary guidelines, resulting in an acknowledgment of the costs of more fish and red/orange vegetables, than has been used in the past. In announcing the increase in August, the USDA cited consistent evidence that previous benefit levels were too low to realistically feed people who rely on SNAP benefits, with one study showing nearly nine out of 10 recipients had reported the cost of healthy foods as a barrier to achieving a healthy diet.
SNAP benefit eligibility is determined by household size and income. While there are some unique factors that are considered in some cases, a family of four is eligible for benefits as long as their monthly gross income does not exceed $2,871 and their monthly net income does not exceed $2,209.
How and Where to Get Help
SNAP benefits are issued and managed at a state level, so your first step to apply or check on current benefits is to connect with your state office or website. Each state has its own application form, though you may need to contact a local SNAP office in person or by phone to request one if it’s not available online.
Unfortunately, signing up and maintaining benefits is no easy feat, says Tina Postel, CEO of Charlotte food pantry Loaves & Fishes. She says she even tried signing up herself to experience what others must go through to get benefits.
“It’s a 10-page application and I have a master’s degree and I’m not in crisis. And it was a struggle for me to figure it out,” Postel says. “Like there were questions that I didn’t know how to answer.”
Postel’s advice: Call your local or county department of social services, or other nonprofits that operate in your area for help. Postel says many such agencies and organizations even have specialized staff who can help people navigate local systems and applications.
As many unemployed Americans discovered early on during the pandemic, social media might also offer communities of support and advice. On Reddit, r/foodstamps hosts a daily forum of people seeking help, and others sharing their own experiences. Similar communities also exist on Facebook.
Nonprofit organizations such as Feeding America and Hunger Free America offer national directories and resources for people looking for help in their own communities. There’s even a nonprofit digital startup called mRelief whose mission is to help people sign up for food stamps. Government resources available on USA.gov, the USDA website, and Benefits.gov might also offer helpful information.
Food Insecurity in America
About 1 in 10 households experienced food insecurity in 2020, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Serious health complications are a common side effect of food insecurity, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit national agency that seeks to reduce hunger. For children, hunger can diminish their ability to learn and grow.
The effects of the pandemic on food insecurity in the U.S. have been mixed: Feeding America projects a slight overall improvement in 2021 compared to 2020. But those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic were already most likely to experience food insecurity before the pandemic. There are also significant racial disparities when it comes to food insecurity, with 1 in 5 Black individuals expected to experience food insecurity this year compared to 1 in 9 white people.
Despite a seemingly hot job market right now, pandemic-related job loss remains a common theme for people getting food pantry assistance. With the recent end of extra federal unemployment assistance, many who are still unemployed or under-employed are facing increasing constraints on their budget.
Then there are the misconceptions many people have about people who require food assistance. “We fight these stereotypes all day long,” says Postel. “People just have no idea. Many of the people on food stamps are working. They’re just not earning a livable wage in their communities.”
Even for people who have sought help, SNAP benefits aren’t a complete solution to the problem. The Singletary family says they commonly rely on food pantries for extra food to feed their family of five when their monthly SNAP benefits run out.
Knowing these misconceptions exist can make the problem worse by deterring people from seeking help. “I was ashamed at first,” says Edwards, before accepting the help of a local food pantry to feed her children and herself.
Postel wishes more people in need would see the SNAP program and local nonprofits for what they are: there to help people in need.
“Pride gets in the way,” Postel says. “Sometimes people just suffer in silence.”