The US struggle to pay for food: ‘No matter how well you budget, you will run out of something’
Brett St Amand, a 59-year-old veteran living in Georgetown, Kentucky, never planned on using food stamps. For as long as he can remember, the self-identified Republican prided himself on his independence, preferring a life in the rural outskirts of town and making his living as a self-employed horse broker.
But in the early months of the pandemic, St Amand and his wife separated, setting off a period of instability. He moved out of their longtime house, put everything he owned into a storage unit and started bouncing from one temporary home to another. During this time, St Amand – whose only steady income is a monthly VA disability check for $152 – relied heavily on local charities and churches to get by.
One day, a friend gently suggested that St Amand enroll in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap), more commonly known as food stamps. He rejected the idea at first. “I’m kind of prideful, you know?” he recalled in a recent interview. “I was embarrassed.”
Eventually, a reluctant St Amand filled out the program paperwork, and started getting $345 each month in benefits. This money meant that he could now afford his own groceries, instead of depending on the unpredictable inventories at nearby food pantries. And not only could he get staples like produce, bread, milk and water, but he could even occasionally indulge in the likes of steak and seafood. It was mundane stuff, but it also felt like a miracle. “I was doing backflips,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe that everything came together and I got it.”
So St Amand was devastated this past May, when he discovered that his Snap benefits would soon be slashed by nearly a third, from $345 to $250 a month. Immediately, he upended the way he shopped for groceries, almost entirely ditching fresh fruits and vegetables, and swapping seafood and red meat for poultry and eggs. Today, he subsists mostly on a starch-heavy diet of tortillas, rice and beans.
The turn in St Amand’s luck was the result of a controversial bill that Kentucky lawmakers passed a few weeks earlier, repealing the state’s Covid-19 emergency declaration. With that one maneuver, legislators drastically reduced the amount that Bluegrass state residents could receive in food stamps each month.
Before the repeal, the federal government had been giving recipients extra funds on top of their typical Snap allotment each month, a measure meant to mitigate heightened food insecurity during the Covid-19 pandemic. These top-offs, known officially as “emergency allotments”, amounted to at least $95 per household each month, and have been credited with helping poor families across the country put dinner on the table amid tumultuous times.
However, under program rules, emergency allotments are only available in states that have a Covid-19 emergency declaration in place. So when Kentucky lawmakers voted to remove the state’s declaration last March, the extra grocery money that residents had come to rely on disappeared alongside it.
Today, at least 16 other states have done the same, arguing that extended welfare programs are to blame for high unemployment and are a waste of taxpayer money.
The total amount of food assistance lost as a result is staggering: according to a new analysis by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the Guardian, states opting out of emergency allotments have collectively relinquished nearly $4bn worth of food stamps that would have gone toward helping their poorest residents avoid going hungry.
This loss of benefits has effectively created a two-tiered welfare system across the country, in which families living under identical circumstances may receive vastly different amounts of food aid based solely on where they live.
For low-income residents, the slashing of pandemic food assistance takes both a physical and a psychological toll. Food stamp users say they’re buying fewer groceries, accumulating credit card debt they can’t pay off and even skipping meals. The lost benefits also represent millions of dollars each month that are no longer circulating within local businesses.
In affected states, food pantries say they’re seeing steeply increasing demand even as the cost of providing hunger relief has gone up due to inflation and high gas prices.
“I can draw a direct correlation between the loss of benefits and increased need that we’re seeing,” said Vincent James Sr, president and chief executive officer of the Dare to Care food bank, a network of 300 anti-hunger organizations across Kentucky and Indiana. James estimates that there’s been a 20%-30% increase in visitors across the network, even as supplies have diminished – conditions that put families at a risk of being turned away empty-handed.
“Non-profits fill that gap where the private and public sector are not providing,” James said. “When we run out of food, that means that there are going to be people that are literally starving.”
Until May, Marie Cornelius, a 71-year-old retiree in Louisville, had been receiving about $240 a month in food stamps. The money made up her entire grocery budget, which she spent at her local Kroger. The food pantries that she had long relied on shuttered at the beginning of the pandemic and have yet to reopen. (Cornelius requested to be identified only by her middle and last names.)
When Kentucky lawmakers terminated the emergency allotments, Cornelius’s Snap benefits dropped to just $20 a month, the non-pandemic amount she’s eligible for based on her social security income. Now she buys groceries with her credit card, and tries not to think about the ballooning balance that haunts her from month to month. Earlier this year, she had to pay for a car repair and unexpected vet bills. Losing emergency Snap benefits means that she’s now in debt for food, as well.
“I have other bills that need to be paid off, not grocery bills,” she said when we met up recently at a park near her home. It was a windy day and her blond curls danced around her face as she spoke.
For decades, poor Americans like Cornelius have relied heavily on the federal food stamp program to afford groceries. Covid-19 emergency allotments were first introduced in their current form in April 2021, as a way to bump up benefits for all recipients during the pandemic, with all of its attendant challenges including low employment rates and high costs of living.
Over the past year, however, states began to mull an end to their Covid-19 emergency declarations, noting a decline in cases and the widespread availability of vaccines. In Kentucky, lawmakers advocated for the effective repeal of pandemic food assistance by suggesting that residents no longer “deserved” it.
“The question we really need to ask ourselves is: are we in a state of emergency?” said Kentucky statehouse representative Thomas Huff, who presented the bill ending the Covid-19 emergency declaration during a legislative session in March. “Are the hospitals overflowing? Are the deaths skyrocketing? Are the numbers climbing? That’s the question we need to ask, not whether we can squeak by another month on free federal money.”
“I’m not really interested in continuing to draw federal funds if they’re not deserved or needed,” Huff added later in the same session.
The Kentucky state legislature eventually answered Huff’s questions resoundingly: lawmakers in both chambers voted by veto-proof majorities to end the state’s Covid-19 emergency declaration, cutting residents off from extra Snap benefits beginning May onward. (Huff’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
Cornelius panicked when she learned of the news while watching television one day, and decried what she felt as a lack of empathy from lawmakers for people facing hunger like herself. “[Food insecurity] can happen to anybody,” she said.
Cornelius wistfully recalled the healthy foods she used to buy with her extra food stamps. She’d eaten shrimp for the first time in years, and could even afford locally produced milk and organic fruits and vegetables. When she got dentures, she was able to buy fish like salmon, cod and tilapia, as well as frozen microwavable meals, all of which were soft on her gums.
These days, her drastically reduced benefits mean she forgoes almost all of that. Instead, Cornelius typically eats a banana for breakfast, Campbell’s soup and crackers for lunch, and a poached egg for dinner. In fact, eggs are the only food she now gets more of than ever – buying and eating approximately one carton a week – because they’re a relatively cheap source of protein, she said. But Cornelius is also supposed to be on a low-cholesterol diet, and she worries about what eating so many eggs will mean for her health.
Emergency allotments – had they remained in place – would have gone a long way for Cornelius and other Kentucky residents. In April, the final month in which the state was eligible for the benefit, over a quarter million households received nearly $53m in extra Snap benefits.
Put another way, with every passing month, the total sum of pandemic food assistance left on the table by Kentucky alone grows by tens of millions of dollars. Aggregated across all affected states, that value balloons to more than $3.9bn.
The Guardian and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project calculated this estimate as follows: for each month beginning with April 2021 – when emergency allotments were first introduced in their current form – we added up the number of households enrolled in the Snap program across all states that had eliminated the extra benefits by that point. We then multiplied the total number of affected households across all months by $95, the minimum amount of pandemic food assistance that each would have received every month.
The total amounts to more than $3.9bn through August 2022, the latest month for which federal data is available. This value is probably an undercount; while every household is guaranteed at least $95 in extra food stamps each month, under the emergency allotment policy, many got benefits worth far more. (The estimate also does not reflect lost emergency allotments between September and November, as Snap participation data for this period has not yet been released.)
The lost funds translate to billions in no-strings-attached grocery money that the poorest Americans would have been able to use to buy food over the past year – a period during which inflation has increased the cost of eating at home by 12.4%, according to the most recently available data from the US Department of Labor’s consumer price index.
Cornelius thinks a lot about what life would have been like had lawmakers not slashed her emergency Snap allotments. “It’s awful,” she said, about needing to put groceries on credit these days. “I just keep feeling like I can’t get ahead.”
Anti-hunger advocates say that the loss of emergency food assistance has been punishing for Kentucky’s poorest, who are now relying on food pantries more than ever. “We’re seeing folks that didn’t even come [earlier] during the pandemic,” said James, the president of the food bank network Dare to Care. “They’re coming now, and we’re seeing them for the first time. They’re having to decide between food and their medication, and between food and gas. And that’s an impossible choice that no one should have to make in America today. But yet, we have citizens that are making those choices.”
The increase in need has dovetailed with a number of other challenges that Dare to Care’s pantries are facing at the moment: less food to give away.
According to James, the network has seen the amount of food it receives from the federal government reduced by more than one-half in the past few months, which makes up a significant portion of the assistance it hands out to families.
Tania Whitfield, 37, a single mother of two in Lexington, is one of the many Kentucky residents who have turned to food pantries occasionally for support during this time. “I only go when I really need it,” she said when we met up earlier this month.
Whitfield currently gets $740 a month in food stamps. If the state’s Covid-19 emergency declaration hadn’t been repealed, she’d be getting an additional $95 per month in emergency allotments – money that would go a long way in giving her and her daughters peace of mind.
For Whitfield’s family, the most stressful part of each month comes the week or so before their benefits run out. That’s when grocery money gets low, and Whitfield has found herself caught between buying chicken for dinner or snacks for her daughters to take to school. (Whitfield’s daughters qualify for free school breakfasts and lunches, but students have to bring their own snacks for recess.)
When this happened in September, Whitfield ultimately had little choice but to send her daughters to school empty-handed, promising them that she’d surprise them with something special once next month’s food stamps became available.
“My daughters don’t want to make me feel bad but they get comments at school like: ‘Why can’t your mom make more money?’ or ‘Why didn’t you bring a snack to school?’”
Whitfield, who’s working toward her GED, said she was fired from her most recent job as a restaurant server because she couldn’t work more than a few shifts each week. But her availability was limited by the fact that she couldn’t find affordable and safe childcare for her daughters for most of the available shifts.
She tries hard to shop frugally, but inflation at the grocery store has put even store-brand products out of reach at times. She buys household staples like frozen pizza and boxed macaroni and cheese half as often as she used to, and has eschewed fresh vegetables for frozen and canned alternatives. Family packs of chicken have gotten smaller, she says, but she feels like she’s shelling out more for them than ever.
“No matter how well you budget, you will run out of something,” she said when we met at a local cafe in October. At the time, her eldest daughter’s birthday was approaching, and Whitfield wanted to send her to school with birthday treats for her classmates. But Whitfield only had about $26 in benefits left for the rest of her Snap cycle, which wasn’t going to be enough. Whitfield eventually decided that she would borrow money from a friend to cover whatever food stamps wouldn’t.
Anti-hunger advocates point out that every Snap dollar relinquished by Kentucky lawmakers is a dollar that would have circulated within the state’s economy. In April, the final month in which extra Snap money was available for Kentuckians, residents received over $52m in emergency allotments alone.
“That’s $50m not going to local farmers and grocers,” said Tyler Offerman, food justice fellow at the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, an advocacy group for low-income residents.
Other anti-hunger advocates in Kentucky said that giving people money to buy groceries doesn’t just help them avoid hunger – it also has a “multiplier effect” on the local economy. It’s one thing for people to get food from local charities, said Emily McCue, a Snap employment and training coach for a local Goodwill. “But it’s not putting money back into the community.”
In October, the federal government announced a 12.5% increase to Snap benefits across the board, as part of a standard annual cost-of-living adjustment pegged to the rate of inflation. For some, particularly those who receive a relatively high level of food stamps each month, the boost was significant.
Whitfield, the single mother in Lexington, saw an increase of more than $80 a month, which went a long way to bridging the gap left by the lost pandemic food aid. (It bears pointing out, however, that had Kentucky kept its Covid-19 emergency declaration in place, Whitfield would be getting both an extra $95 a month in emergency Snap benefits and a cost-of-living adjustment.)
But for many, the cost-of-living adjustment is cold comfort. For Cornelius, the retiree in Louisville, a 12.5% increase comes out to less than $3 a month.
Taken together, the predicaments faced by Kentuckians enrolled in the Snap program reflect not only a dire new level of food insecurity, but also a potential preview of a broader hunger crisis to come.
Should other states follow Kentucky’s lead and repeal their own Covid-19 emergency declarations, millions more Americans could find themselves facing the same hard choices faced by some Kentuckians. Then there’s a possibility that the federal government may do away with pandemic food assistance entirely.
As of right now, the continuation of federal emergency allotments is contingent on the existence of a national public health order. If that gets revoked in the coming months, it would eliminate emergency allotments for all Snap recipients, and could trigger a nationwide spike in hunger, said Ellen Vollinger, Snap director at the Food Research & Action Center, an organization that advocates against poverty.
“Food insecurity is really not rocket science,” she said. “It’s not a disease that we don’t know what to do about. The country knows what to do about food insecurity … The major factor is just a pretty obvious clearcut one, and that is: do people have enough money to be able to afford what they need?”
For St Amand, the veteran in Georgetown, the toll of getting his food stamps slashed extends far beyond the simple fact of not being able to afford food – it’s also brought a sense of dread and shame to the experience of grocery shopping.
In multiple instances, he’s had to take items out of his bags at the checkout line upon realizing that his food stamps won’t cover his bill. He credits the generosity of churches and neighbors for helping him stay afloat in the past few months.
“I’ve had people literally pay for my food and that brings tears to your eyes,” he said.
Jessica Fu is a journalist specializing in food policy, agriculture, and environmental issues.
Co-published with The Guardian.