February SNAP Benefits Distributed Early As Uncertainty Looms Over Program

The Greater Cleveland Food Bank is gearing up with extra food for SNAP recipients and others affected by the government shutdown.
The Greater Cleveland Food Bank is gearing up with extra food for SNAP recipients and others affected by the government shutdown. [ideastream]
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Cuyahoga County food stamp recipients will get their February benefits early, likely this week, according to officials at Cuyahoga County Job and Family Services.

Funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, is, like many federal programs, under threat as the government shutdown continues.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have found a way to cover February benefits, but those food stamps must be distributed early, on or around Jan. 16, said Kevin Gowen, Administrator at Cuyahoga County Job and Family Services.

Some 225,000 Cuyahoga County residents receive SNAP food assistance, and the shut down along with this early benefit distribution is creating confusion as well as uncertainty about the future, Gowen said.

 “SNAP is funded through the Farm Bill which was already approved. The problem is that while the Farm Bill was approved the funding for it has not been yet,” he said.

The USDA did some maneuvering and found emergency funds, which had been previously approved by Congress. They are using that money for this one time pay out, Gowen said.

 “Beyond February, we don’t know. Come March 1st our future is uncertain,” he said.

SNAP contributes about $28 million monthly to the local economy, said Gowen.  He is concerned local grocers would also feel the pinch if the program is stymied.

Cleveland resident Monique Jackson was recently visiting one of the county centers were people receive assistance, for an appointment with a benefits counselor. Jackson had not heard about the food stamps coming early.

“That’s crazy, to give it early," she said, "why not send it out at the regular time?"

Jackson likely will not be the only food stamp recipient thrown off when the February food stamps are pushed out early. Many people are calling and asking about the changes in the program, according to Job and Family Services officials.

In addition to the confusion around the early delivery of February food stamp benefits, Jackson is also worried about what will happen to her if the shutdown continues.

“How would I be able to feed myself? I’m unemployed. I don’t know what would happen if they was to shut the SNAP program down right now,” she said.   

Jackson receives about $192 a month from the SNAP program, which is about $60 to $70 more than the average allotment for a single person. A number of factors including family size and the recipient’s monthly income determines the benefit amount.  

Jackson says if her benefits are interrupted, she would have to turn to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank for help.

The food bank partners with some 900 agencies around the area to help distribute food, said Tiffany Scruggs, the food bank’s Outreach Director.

The food bank already fills a gap for SNAP recipients who have run out of subsidies before the end of the month, Scruggs said.

The agency is gearing up to have additional food available if the shutdown continues, but Scruggs fears there would still be a void.

 “SNAP contributes 12 times the amount that food banks carry in terms of food that we distribute, so with that it would be a national crisis,” she said.

The food bank is also using its workers to get the word out that February benefits are coming early.

 “We have about 20 individuals who are stationed in the community — really the feet in the street. The goal would be to be located in common places, libraries, gas stations, bus stops,” she said.

The plan is to hand out flyers and tell people the late January SNAP money is not an extra benefit. These food stamps need to last until the end of February, said Scruggs.

It is unclear if the USDA will be able to find more emergency funds to keep the program going after February, should the government shutdown continue.

 

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