Local food pantries are anticipating a higher demand this month due to the partial government shutdown’s impact on disbursement of food stamps.
The state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or “SNAP” issued February’s monthly allotment of food stamp benefits two weeks earlier to help residents affected by the partial federal government shutdown. Because some residents used part or all of their February food stamps in January, it’s possible they will run out before the next disbursement on March 1.
SNAP recipients “were encouraged to hold that money for food purchases until February, however, you still need to buy groceries, so if you needed groceries and you knew the money was on your (electronic benefits transfer) card, you’d use it,” said Dona Ditrio, director of New Opportunities of Greater Meriden.
The organization’s food pantry, at 74 Cambridge St. in Meriden, prepared by ordering double the amount of food as usual from the Connecticut Food Bank. The pantry serves residents in Meriden, Wallingford, Southington and Berlin.
“We were trying to be proactive,” Ditrio said.
Sue Heald, manager of Master’s Manna food pantry in Wallingford, said “it’s very possible we could see more people in the next few weeks.”
About 384,000 Connecticut residents in 215,000 households receive SNAP benefits from the state, including 133,000 children under the age of 18 and 65,000 individuals age 60 and older. SNAP is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Food and Nutrition Service.
Any spike in pantry clients at New Opportunities would come at a time when the pantry is already seeing a rising demand. Ditrio said the number of meals the pantry has served to shoppers has been growing for years and has risen about “25 to 30 percent” since summer.
“We’re seeing 20 new individuals a day on average,” Ditrio said.
While the number of clients tends to rise in the winter and subside in summer, Ditrio doesn’t anticipate a large drop off this year.
“The trend is we’re seeing more new people coming in and using the pantry. So those 20 or so new people that are coming in every day will still be using the pantry in the summer,” she said.
Ditrio feels the trend is largely due to income not keeping up with the cost of living.
“I think households are struggling to make ends meet,” Ditrio said. “They’re unemployed or underemployed, and the rent goes up, the cost of clothing has gone up, the cost of groceries has gone up.”
While the unemployment rate has steadily declined, Ditrio said those numbers don’t capture individuals who are not in the job pool and aren’t receiving unemployment benefits.
“I can think of 10, 15 people personally that are looking for a job...they’ve exhausted the benefits, and so they’re living on a very limited budget but they’re not being counted as unemployed.” Ditrio said.
Her organization is also seeing more people that don’t earn enough to cover all the basics.
Rates of food insecurity – a state in which consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other factors – around the country has fallen in recent years. However, in Connecticut, the percentage of individuals who are food insecure has stayed around 42 percent, according to Paul Shipman, director of marketing and communications for the Connecticut Food Bank, which is headquartered in Wallingford.
“We still see people struggling despite the fact that the economy has improved post-recession,” Shipman said.
Shipman said in recent years the Connecticut Food Bank has started to hold “pop-up pantries” around the state, including two events in Meriden last month. Ditrio said 91 households attended the first hour-long pop-up event on Jan. 4, despite the fact that it was only planned a day in advance and had little advertising. The second pop-up event in Meriden was attended by 166 households. Pop up pantries offer fresh produce, dairy, meat and bread.
“It certainly speaks to need,” Shipman said.
Shipman said much of the food served at the pop-up pantries comes to the Connecticut Food Bank due to international trade tariffs on food. The tariffs have reduced exports of U.S. agricultural products, so the federal government has sought to mitigate the impact on farmers by purchasing commodities and making them available to food banks.
Gov. Ned Lamont recently floated the idea of closing the state’s projected deficit by imposing a new tax on groceries.
Shipman and Ditrio feel the tax would compound the food insecurity problem.
“It hits people of low income disproportionately because they have less money to spend on things like groceries than high income earners, but their tax is not lower,” Shipman said. “...It’s something we’re watching and we want to make sure we understand what's going on and what it’s going to mean for the people.”