Approximately 290,000 Iowans living in some 141,000 households will receive less food assistance beginning in April, due to Governor Kim Reynolds' decision to declare the COVID-19 state of emergency over.
Leaders of area food pantries are expecting a surge in demand, as Iowans' Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits will drop by at least $95 per household, and in some cases by more than 90 percent.
According to the Iowa Hunger Coalition, "The average SNAP benefit for individuals will drop from $2.65 per meal to an estimated $1.52 per meal. Total SNAP benefits issued in the state of Iowa will decrease by an estimated $29.5 million," a 42.6 percent reduction.
"SOME OF THE HIGHEST NEEDS WE'VE EVER BEEN ASKED TO MEET"
A news release from the Iowa Hunger Coalition explained, "Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has allowed states to issue Emergency Allotments for SNAP, granting the maximum possible benefit amount to program participants." However, "A state must have an emergency declaration in place to receive and distribute Emergency Allotments, and USDA has granted states a one-month phase-out of these additional benefits once an emergency declaration has been lifted."
Reynolds' last pandemic-related disaster emergency proclamation expired on February 15. So March was the final month for Iowans to receive the extra food assistance. The Iowa Department of Human Services announced the change on the agency's website and mailed postcards to some recipients.
North Liberty Community Pantry executive director Kaila Rome commented in the news release, "Families we serve are already feeling the financial pinch with rising food costs. When April comes, we are bracing for some of the highest needs we've ever been asked to meet."
Des Moines Area Religious Council chief executive officer Matt Unger said the organization's food pantry network has noticed increased demand in the past when benefits changed. "We saw it with the sunset of increased SNAP benefits after the 2009 recession and we saw it again with the government shutdown in January 2019. We’ve been preparing for this and trying to make sure both the people we assist and those who support our work see it coming.”
But Coralville Community Food Pantry executive director John Boller warned that Iowa food pantries "are already struggling to secure enough food to meet the existing need." When SNAP benefits decrease next month, he predicted, "we will very likely see longer lines, food shortages, and worker burnout in the nonprofit anti-hunger sector.”
"FOR US, THE PANDEMIC IS VERY MUCH NOT OVER"
Cecelia Proffit of Iowa City is expecting a $254 reduction in monthly food assistance for her family of four. In a telephone interview, she told Bleeding Heartland that her family lost the federal child tax credit in January and is still dealing with high prices for many essentials. In addition, her husband is severely immuno-compromised. "For us, the pandemic is very much not over. Our kids aren't vaccinated. Not much has changed, except a lot of the support's gone away."
SNAP benefits make up the vast majority of the Proffit family's food budget. Without SNAP, "we're not going to starve," but the family won't be able to buy much fresh fruit or vegetables, or treats for a birthday. It's also "challenging" as a parent of small children. Like many toddlers, Proffit's three-year-old wastes some food. "It reduces a lot of stress that way, when you're not pinching every single penny to feed your kids."
Proffit pointed out that the state won't save any money from the coming reduction in food assistance, since SNAP is fully federally funded.
The federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC) provides some additional food assistance for Proffit's household. But the only Iowans who are eligible for WIC are pregnant, breastfeeding, or postpartum women, and children age 5 or under. Although the program is helpful, it doesn't provide cash that can be used for any kind of food. Rather, families receive certain items like milk, eggs, and cheese.
"IT'S PRETTY SCARY"
Tara Kramer of Des Moines is among the majority of Iowa SNAP recipients who are not eligible for WIC. Her food assistance is about to drop from $250 to $20 per month, which works out to about 22 cents per meal. In a telephone interview, she said the enhanced SNAP benefits had allowed her to pay for other essentials over the past two years.
Kramer has a disability, and will soon have to quit physical therapy that helps reduce her pain, because she will no longer be able to afford the co-pays. She may also need to give up some medications. "It's pretty scary."
She recalled receiving a postcard about the coming loss of emergency food benefits, but has heard from others in town who never received such notification, and speculated that many people might not have noticed the small card. She anticipated that some Iowans will find out in the check-out line that the funds on their card are not sufficient to cover their groceries, because they are losing hundreds of dollars a month.
Based on a 2019 report on SNAP benefits, Kramer said approximately 10 percent of recipients will be in her boat, receiving only $20 each month.
She added that supply chain issues had reduced the available food in grocery stores. "People are buying the least expensive things, so what is even going to be on the shelf when I go next month?"
"WE HAVE TO RETURN TO PRE-PANDEMIC LIFE"
Bleeding Heartland sought comment from the governor's office on whether Reynolds was aware that ending the disaster emergency proclamation would dramatically decrease SNAP benefits, or planned any further steps to address food insecurity in light of the coming cuts. The governor's spokesperson Alex Murphy replied via email on March 28,
The enhanced SNAP benefits were connected to COVID, when individuals may have lost their jobs or been prevented from working. Like many other COVID-related benefits, the enhancement ended along with the termination of the COVID Public Health Disaster Proclamation.
While we recognize the need for increased SNAP benefits during the pandemic, we also recognize that we have to return to pre-pandemic life. The DHS has many resources for those facing food insecurity. Currently there are over 86,000 job openings listed on the IowaWorks site giving individuals an opportunity to return to the workforce. Iowa Workforce Development, the state’s re-employment agency, looks forward to working with Iowans to help connect them to those opportunities.
Murphy did not immediately respond to a follow-up message, asking how Iowa Workforce Development could help the majority of Iowa's SNAP recipients, who are either children, elderly people, or non-senior adults with disabilities (see tables B.14 and B.15 from the 2019 report).
As Proffit noted, many Iowans who could otherwise work can't easily return to "pre-pandemic life," because they are at high risk of facing severe health problems if infected with COVID-19.
Top photo of SNAP benefits sign taken by Jonathan Weiss, available via Shutterstock.