Those in NJ relying on aid to buy food could get less money as grocery prices soar

If the current federal coronavirus pandemic emergency expires in mid-July, so will the additional SNAP benefits that hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents relied on to buy food.

At the end of April, 866,381 people in 450,365 households were receiving NJ SNAP benefits, according to the NJ Department of Human Services.

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) helps eligible low-income families purchase groceries through a benefits card that can be used at most retail stores and some farmers’ markets.

If the federal public health emergency is not extended by July 15, the increased SNAP benefits during the pandemic will revert to pre-COVID calculated levels and significantly reduce benefits currently provided to low-income families using these resources.

“Right now, a one-person household that receives SNAP receives $243 per month with SNAP benefits,” said Triada Stampas, CEO and President of Fulfill Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. “If they are only entitled to the minimum benefit in regular circumstances, which is the case for many seniors and people with disabilities, their benefits will drop from $243 per month to $20 per month.

“And that’s a serious waste of resources for food.”

Those receiving SNAP benefits received an additional $36.24 per person per month starting in August, based on a new formula used to calculate how much recipients will receive, on top of the 95% increase. $ per month which remains in place as long as the pandemic emergency continues. .

Food prices continue to rise

But as the threat of benefits diminishes, food prices continue to rise and food banks across the state are feeling the strain as demand soars.

“The impact has been felt, not only clearly on the food bank in terms of our ability to buy the food we need to buy, but also on transportation, or the ability to go out and pick up donated food, to buy food and also to deliver food,” said Adele LaTourette, senior director of policy and advocacy for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.

Community Food Bank is one of the largest anti-hunger and anti-poverty organizations in the state. It has two warehouses in Hillside and Egg Harbor Township. These locations serve more than 800 regional programs and community partners in 15 of the state’s 21 counties.

According to LaTourette, food prices rose 9% in April, the 17th consecutive month of increases. Price increases are much higher for fresh foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, at 14.3%, she explained. In weekly calls with the organization’s network pantries, she said other pantries say the number of people they feed is now higher than it was at most. strong from the pandemic.

The combination of the end of rent and mortgage moratoriums, the rising cost of gas and basic necessities, and the instability of income and housing due to pandemic-related fluctuations, is having a “devastating impact about families who depend on food pantries, LaTourette said.

“It really felt like a one-two-three punch. It’s not just a double, and that’s what people are dealing with.

Residents see more demand

Amanda Parrish Block normally distributes 16,000 pounds of food a week to families in her community. Recently, she prepared to distribute 19,000 pounds of food amid the pressure of rapidly rising prices.

Block’s organization, GRACE, has been fighting food insecurity in the Summit region by providing between 450 and 500 households with fresh food and other necessities every Thursday evening for the past six years. The 501c3 is an official program of the City of Summit, but is entirely financially independent and depends on community grants and donations to operate.

The price GRACE is paying for food is big “or better,” but Block is still feeling the pinch of rising prices. Egg prices for the organization have increased 300% in the past two years and 60% in the past six months. Milk prices increased by 15% and diaper prices increased by 17%.

Some of its regular food donors have had to pull out due to soaring prices, as they can no longer afford to overproduce in order to have a leftover donation margin.

Using its forecasting model, Block is generally able to predict when community needs will increase throughout the year. In April, the number of households dependent on the organization generally decreases as the labor market improves. But in April, its numbers were above its annual average of last year.

A recent distribution on May 26 broke the household record when the organization served 602 households with food and supplies, 89% of which are at Summit.

“Right now, of course, everyone is feeling the financial burden of price increases everywhere they go,” Block said. “But we definitely call on our supporters, individuals and foundations to help us.”

Food banks face new pressures

Fulfill was feeding 136,000 people, including 50,000 children, before the pandemic. Currently, Fulfill feeds 215,000 people, including 70,000 children. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the food bank has served more than 4 million meals. Food demand is up 40% since January, Stampas said.

“These pricing pressures are impacting the people we serve,” Stampas said. “There’s a saying in our space that rent eats first. Food is where people can sacrifice. They can’t sacrifice on the rent they owe their landlords, they can’t sacrifice on the electric bill that keeps the light on.

“And so what they can sacrifice and sacrifice is the quality and quantity of the food they buy.”

Stampas also observed a “worrying trend” in which their individual donors are unable to donate their usual amounts due to job shortages and supply chain issues.

“Even when there is food to give away, they may not have the staff,” Stampas said. “They’re so understaffed that they can’t devote the time to sorting and separating food to donate rather than going to the dumpster.”

Staffing shortages at food retailers are having a huge impact on food banks that depend on them, like Fulfill, because perishable goods require the most handling. If there are no staff assigned to look after these food items, the quality and overall ability of produce, dairy, and other products to make it to food banks suffers seriously.

“It was really a lesson in how failure at any point in the supply chain can affect our ability to serve those in need.”

James Allen, manager of the Mercer Street Friends food bank, also pointed to the rising cost of eggs. However, he said sellers of most of their other products are able to keep prices at their usual numbers for the time being.

Mercer Street Friends is located in Ewing Township, Mercer County, and “channels 5.5 million pounds of food and groceries each year to a network of more than 100 local pantries, shelters, soup popular, food sites, schools, programs for the elderly and disabled, and low.” -income housing sites,” according to its website.

Allen is wary of the impact of inflation on the food bank’s parent organizations, such as the Community Food Bank of New Jersey and Feeding America, and prepares for possible changes.

Many ways to help

While there is no immediate end in sight to rising prices, there are ways to take action.

Block encourages people to support their local food banks or support Feeding America, which is an organization providing nationwide support to “big centers”, such as the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.

Stampas said people can contact their representatives in Washington, D.C. about the expiration of the federal coronavirus pandemic emergency.

At the local level, if residents grow their own food or have plots in a community garden and have a surplus, food banks like GRACE Block accept donations.

As food banks work to redistribute their supplies to ensure households in need receive equal amounts of fresh produce, stable produce and other supplies, Block wants people to get involved in the fight. against the “broken system” where hundreds of households struggle to break even. .

“People’s pay hasn’t gone up and prices have…we’re talking about a pay rate that doesn’t cover the necessities of life,” Block said.

While mask mandates have ceased and many in-person functions are back, vulnerable communities are still feeling the ripple effects of the economic impact of the pandemic and the detrimental impact of price increases brought on by the inflation.

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Sarah Dolgin can be contacted at [email protected].

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