Food assistance threatened for hungry Vermonters

LILY BRADBURN, LOCAL food access coordinator for HOPE, makes selections at the organizations’ Middlebury food shelf this past November. Bradburn warns that proposed changes to federal food assistance programs will mean fewer food benefits for Vermonters and less money in the Vermont economy.

It would have a particularly devastating impact on Vermont. About 68% of the households that currently receive SNAP would see a decrease in their benefits.
— Faye Mack, Hunger Free Vermont

MIDDLEBURY — Local human services providers are bracing for changes in rules governing the biggest federal food assistance program — changes they say would result in fewer people qualifying for benefits like food commodities and free school meals.
Proposed changes would limit flexibility for Vermont to adjust food assistance when the economy turns sour, end the state’s ability to support people who face high childcare or rent expense, and treat Vermonters’ utility expenses as if they were the same as those of Americans in warmer states.
In the end, the changes would mean thousands of Vermonters wouldn’t get the food they need and there would be millions of dollars less of federal money circulating in the Vermont economy.
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are still reviewing two of the three proposed changes to the rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “Food Stamps”), which have drawn much public testimony. Any approved changes would be added to the Federal Register — the official journal of the U.S. government that contains government agency rules, proposed rules and public notices.
Federal rule makers act as if “these able-bodied adults are using SNAP as a crutch. And if you take that away from them, they’ll be able to pull themselves out of difficult situations,” said Lily Bradburn, Local Food Access Coordinator for the nonprofit Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE).
“But that’s not the reality of it; just taking away one of these supposed crutches won’t suddenly solve all the multi-faceted barriers people have in facing food-insecurity and poverty.”
Here’s what’s being proposed:
•  A rule that would prevent Vermonters from gaining a waiver to access 3SquaresVT benefits (Vermont’s version of SNAP) during economic downturns. In essence, it would forbid current waivers that kick in when jobs are scarce.
“The administration considers (the waiver) a ‘loophole,’” Bradburn said.
The aforementioned rule has already been approved and is scheduled to take effect on April 1, unless it is stymied by court action.
•  A rule that would reduce 3SquaresVT eligibility by restricting a current state option that allows low-wage worker households with a gross income above 130% of the federal poverty line to qualify for benefits, if the household has a very low net income due to high rent, child care expenses and other budget-busters. In other words, it would restrict the state option to waive the “asset test” for 3SquaresVT applicants.
“Only people at 130% of the poverty line, and lower, could qualify,” Bradburn said.
This restriction, according to Bradburn, would result in around 13,000 Vermonters losing all of their 3SquaresVT benefits; would result in the loss of free school meals for around 4,600 Vermont students; and would remove around $7.5 million in 3SquaresVT resources that each year circulate in the state economy.
“This is not just a program for the people who need (food assistance),” Bradburn said. “This is money that’s going into our economy. When people have SNAP benefits, they go and shop at local places and there’s really great programs and incentives to buy things from local farms…  Grocery stores, farms and the charitable food system would all be affected.”
•  A rule that would require states to use a general, federal guideline for calculating a standard utility allowance as part of the qualification process for SNAP benefits. Trouble is, according to Bradburn, the federal utility allowance won’t fully capture the true utility costs for cold-weather states like Vermont, thus jeopardizing benefits. Advocates estimate around 26,000 Vermont households would lose an average of $82 per month in 3SquaresVT benefits as a result of the lower utility allowance.
“I think having state-by-state flexibility is really important, because we’re not like other states,” Bradburn said. “We have unique needs and unique barriers. To say, ‘Somebody who gets SNAP here is the same as someone who gets SNAP in California,’ is just unfair.
“Vermont would be the hardest hit of all 50 states by this rule change,” Bradburn added.
Faye Mack, advocacy and education director for Hunger Free Vermont, agreed.
“It would have a particularly devastating impact on Vermont,” Mack said. “About 68% of the households that currently receive SNAP would see a decrease in their benefits.”
The proposed utility allowance rule would result in an annual $26 million loss in 3SquaresVT resources and would disproportionately harm low-income seniors and disabled persons, according to Hunger Free Vermont officials. And a loss of $26 million would hurt the Vermont economy, according to Mack.
More than 13,000 Vermonters age 60 and older currently receive 3SquaresVT benefits. A household can earn up to 180% of the federal poverty guideline to qualify. That translates to up to $3,971 per month in income for a family of four.
Approximately 220 HOPE clients currently receive 3SquaresVT benefits, according to Bradburn, who underscored the value of the program.
“Nationally, they say for every meal a food shelf can provide, SNAP provides 12,” Bradburn said.

So how did such an integral federal nutrition program come up for major changes?
Mack explained it all goes back to the 2018 Farm Bill, which passed with substantial bipartisan support. But some members of Congress who believed SNAP was too generous or was being abused, picked another avenue through which to lobby for cuts: The federal rules-making process. In this case, it was up to the USDA to shape SNAP rules based on lawmakers’ intent through the Farm Bill.
“It’s within the agency’s rights to propose changes to the rules within the program,” Mack said. “The proposed rules need to meet certain criteria, and one of them is they can’t be in total violation of the intent of Congress when they passed the law.”
Those lobbying for SNAP cuts have an ally in the White House, Bradburn said.
“The administration, at the end of the day, all they want to do is cut benefits,” she said. “They don’t care how it’s done. The more confusing and nitpicky they get with all of these different allowances and assets and state waivers — it’s to make it harder for great organizations… to sort through all of the chaos.”
HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross echoed Bradburn’s incredulity about the proposed SNAP changes.
“I’m concerned, because there are a lot of people who are just getting by with this assistance — and it’s not a comfortable existence for them,” she said. “And now we’re going to make it more difficult?”
The comment period had expired for all three proposed SNAP rule changes, though advocates recommend those opposed to the program cuts express their concern to Vermont’s representatives in Congress: Rep. Peter Welch, Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“Our Congressional delegation has been vocal in opposition to these cuts,” Mack said, adding, “we expect there will be lawsuits if the final rulings are similar to the proposed rules.”

In the meantime, Mack stressed that SNAP clients should continue to apply for their benefits.
“While there have been many proposed cuts and changes to the SNAP program, no changes have actually gone into effect (yet),” Mack said. “Right now, the program remains as stable and vital as ever for folks, and they should continue to apply and receive benefits if they are eligible.”
The Independent, through HOPE, received a testimonial from a person who has been receiving 3SquaresVT benefits since 2013. She didn’t want to identify herself, except to say she’s in her 50s and has a child living in her home. She became a SNAP client after sustaining a work-related injury.
“(SNAP) is very crucial, I have a special diet and could not buy things I need for my health,” she said through an email.
She added she’d get way behind in her bills if her 3SquaresVT benefits were reduced.
Montross had some harsh words for federal lawmakers and rules-makers who are pushing for SNAP reductions out of a perception that the benefits are being misused.
“This doesn’t pass the ‘smell test’ for reducing fraud,” Montross said. “They are just finding ways to shape things to make it seem like these people aren’t deserving of the assistance they’re receiving.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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