COVID-19 food benefits to shrink in the U.S.

STORY: The U.S. is ending its largest federal nutrition assistance program by the end of March, that kept millions from going hungry through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In December’s spending bill fight, Congress approved cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, meaning recipients lose out on around $82 a month in benefits, starting this month.

Some households will lose their eligibility for the aid altogether.

It’s left Los Angeles resident Deborah Schulhof in a bind.

“I am afraid about not having enough to eat while I have three people in my family. So, I mean, it helped a lot, but, Yeah. I'm just really afraid that I don't know. I'm not a real good cook to make up recipes, but I just have to find some place else for help.”

The reduction in federal assistance comes as food costs continue to climb.

Another LA resident, Erina Martine, says families still struggle to meet basic needs, even as COVID-lockdowns become a thing of the past.

“We’re still dealing with COVID. We're still dealing with a lot of people that lost their jobs and prices are going up. Gas, you know, food, eggs, what? $9.99 for 18 eggs, like, you know, so it's... I don't know. People that have children. You know, it goes beyond that. It goes with hygiene items, it goes with diapers, formula, all of that."

Since 2020, states have been allowed to boost SNAP benefits to the maximum amount allowed for each recipient, instead of applying deductions tied to income.

Experts say that boost has kept the percentage of Americans experiencing food insecurity low at 10% through 2021, even as joblessness soared.

A study from the Urban Institute says SNAP benefits kept 4.2 million people out of poverty. Anti-hunger advocates worry the looming reduction in aid could reverse those gains.

So food banks like this one are gearing up for an increase in visits from those whose SNAP benefits have ended, or will soon.

LA Regional Food Bank CEO, Michael Flood:

“Decrease in benefits, in the SNAP benefits, is going to hit families and individuals at a time when food prices have increased 10% over the last year. So that's going to put more pressure on food banks and our partner agency network to provide food because these are already families and people struggling to meet all of their basic needs. So we're kind of holding on for another increase in the demand for food.”

Debate over spending on food assistance will likely heat up, as lawmakers negotiate a new farm bill, a legislative package passed every five years that funds nutrition, commodity, and conservation programs.

More than 76% of the current $428 billion farm bill went to food assistance programs, and House Republicans have hinted they might review and tighten SNAP work requirements as part of farm bill negotiations.

The House Budget Committee has also floated cuts to SNAP as a means to reduce spending in the ongoing fight over the debt limit.