NEW BEDFORD — Local food pantries are preparing for a rise in demand after pandemic-era food stamp bonuses ended this month.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government allowed states to provide extra food benefits to low-income households through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP. Households received a bonus payment providing them with the maximum amount of benefits, or an extra $95 per month, whichever was greater.
But Congress ended the pandemic program in late 2022, and the last bonuses went out to Massachusetts families last week. Many will lose hundreds of dollars in benefits that they had received for the last three years.
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Roughly half of New Bedford households are on SNAP, one of the highest rates in the state. The average SNAP household in the city receives a normal monthly benefit of $328. The emergency allotment added an average of $156 every month.
“I think this is a horrible time for this to happen,” said Kevin Frederic, who supervises the Solanus Casey Food Pantry for Catholic Social Services. “It should have been stretched out until our grocery prices went down.”
Families are losing those extra benefits as food prices soar. Groceries are 11.3% more expensive than they were a year ago, according to January data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
More people are already coming into the Solanus Casey Food Pantry because of the rising food prices, Frederic said, and he expects the SNAP cuts to increase demand even more over the next month. He’s ordering more food to gear up for the growing number of hungry people.
In the meantime, Frederic is already beginning to see the effect that the rollback is having on families who visit the pantry.
“They were scraping by to begin with,” he said. “It brings their worries to a new level.”
Workers are also seeing the strain at the New Bedford Salvation Army pantry.
“The last three weeks we’ve been seeing our numbers raising up like crazy,” said Maria Tavares, the chapter’s food coordinator. Some 30 to 40 more people have shown up each week than she would normally expect.
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The local Salvation Army is working on ways to address the surge, including getting permission from the food bank that supplies them to place larger food orders.
“Sometimes people donate — we are so grateful for that — but definitely we need to find a way to be able to have more food, to be able to serve these people,” Tavares said.
The food pantry run by the local anti-poverty nonprofit PACE is also working with food suppliers to prepare for higher demand, said PACE Executive Director Pam Kuechler. And, like other local pantries, they have already faced growing hunger in the community.
“We’re busy every day, so it indicates that the whole issue of food insecurity hasn’t changed much since the pandemic,” Kuechler said. “Food security is an issue that doesn’t seem to rebound in the same way that other things might.”
The nonprofit is moving its pantry to a larger space later this month, and while the move wasn’t tied to the SNAP rollback, Kuechler hopes that it will help with any increase in demand.
The extra benefits were “one little sense of relief” that people have now lost, Kuechler said. With rising rents and a simultaneous return to normal for state-sponsored health insurance, it’s a bad time to make changes to SNAP, she added.
“When legislators are looking at some ways to continue to support the community, this is one thing that could make a huge difference for folks,” she said.
The Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a supplemental budget bill last week that would reinstate 40% of the extra benefits to ease the transition. Four of the five representatives for New Bedford — Tony Cabral, Chris Hendricks, Chris Markey, and Paul Schmid — joined in the unanimous vote. Bill Straus did not vote.
The bill was referred to the state Senate Committee on Ways and Means. Sen. Mark Montigny, who represents New Bedford but does not sit on the committee, said he supports the funding.
“A sudden and immediate end to enhanced supplemental nutrition assistance during high inflation is akin to watching thousands of vulnerable families and children teeter near a cliff,” Montigny said in a statement to The Light.
Frederic, the Catholic Social Services pantry supervisor, is watching the bill.
“I’m hoping that it comes soon enough,” he said. “I really hope that it goes through.”
Email reporter Grace Ferguson at email@example.com.
Imagine that, half of New Bedford residents receive SNAP benefits, and of those 50,000+ people, how many don’t work for a living and take advantage of social programs funded by the tax payerd? How many are required to work for 20 hours per week volunteering their time at soup kitchens, food pantries, or other services needed by the city? If I had to bet, I’d say little to none. If you can’t afford to feed your family, why are these people having children, many having multiple children, it’s disgusting, and I can’t wait to sell my home and leave New Bedford forever, what was once a working blue collar city has become the ghetto of Massachusetts, and it’s embarrassing to say I’m from this city, and it’s never going to improve regardless of what you hear from elected officials at every level from city councilors to state representatives.
When more middle class families leave for the suburbs, and sell their homes to absentee property owners, the number of section 8 and welfare recipients will increase, crime rates will increase, drug use will continue to increase and middle class workers will never relocate to New Bedford, and that’s the bottom line, what’s bad now while get worse, and intolerable for decent people.
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