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Food benefits will fall short, advocates say

The Thrifty Food Plan … was not a food plan that represented the reality of what it costs to buy food, how people prepare food, and what is healthy food today."— Anore Horton, Hunger Free Vermont

MIDDLEBURY — Individuals and families who rely on 3SquaresVT — the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Vermont — will get some good news and bad news beginning Oct. 1.

First, the good news: SNAP benefits are slated to increase by 25% in order to better reflect current food prices, what Americans typically eat, dietary guidance, and the nutrients in food items, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Now the bad news, according anti-hunger advocates: The looming SNAP benefit increase, when viewed in concert with  the scheduled Sept. 30 expiration of a previous SNAP hike intended to help recipients through the coronavirus pandemic, still won’t reflect the true costs of setting the table with nutritious meals.

In fact, many Vermont SNAP recipients are likely to find themselves back at square one or worse, according to Anore Horton, executive director of the nonprofit Hunger Free Vermont.

“Most households that are currently enrolled in SNAP are not going to experience an increase in October from what they’re getting right now,” Horton said. “And some households are going to experience a slight decrease.”

SNAP/3SquaresVT, currently serving around 70,000 Vermonters, provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of low-income families so they can buy healthy food and move toward self-sufficiency.

A person can currently qualify for SNAP with an income that’s no more than 185% of the federal poverty guideline. That translates to $1,969 gross monthly income for an individual, and $4,041 for a household of four.

SNAP benefits are set according to several factors, according to Horton, including income, expenses and household size.

The average SNAP benefit amount right now is higher than it’s ever been, because the federal government gave all recipients the maximum allotment — coupled with a 15% increase OK’d by Congress — during the spring of 2020. But those increases will expire Sept. 30, the day before the 25% baseline increase to SNAP kicks in on Oct. 1.

A typical single, older Vermonter currently receiving a SNAP benefit gets $285.95 per month, while a family of four is receiving $808.33, according to Horton.

Prior to the pandemic (January 2020), that same family of four was receiving $428.16 a month, while the single, older Vermonter was receiving $143.21.

So Sept. 30 will wipe clean those maximum benefits, and recipients will see a roughly 25% increase in their base benefit. It will translate into an increase of $36.24 per person, per month, or $1.19 per day, according to the USDA. The exact amount will differ from client to client based on the aforementioned factors.

When the pandemic emergency benefit allotments and current 15% benefits bump end, the average monthly SNAP benefit for a family of four would be approximately what it was in January 2020, plus 25% (about $535), and about $178 for a single older Vermonter, according to Horton.

‘HISTORIC’ ADJUSTMENT

Horton called the Oct. 1 benefits increase “historic.” While there are annual inflationary adjustments to SNAP, there has never been a reassessment of the federal Thrifty Food Plan, to which the SNAP program is tied. The Thrifty Food Plan, according to the USDA, is the “national standard for a nutritious diet at a minimal cost.”

This is the first time the Thrifty Food Plan has been reassessed since it was established in 1972, according to Horton.

“Anti-hunger advocates have been sounding the alarm for decades about the inadequacies of SNAP benefits, and the inadequacy of the Thrifty Food Plan as the basis for calculating how much it would cost a household to buy food,” Horton said. “We’re really pleased the Biden Administration and USDA took this assessment of the Thrifty Food Plan seriously and acknowledged that is was not a food plan that represented the reality of what it costs to buy food, how people prepare food, and what is healthy food today.”

That said, the combination of expiring SNAP benefits on Sept. 30 and the 25% increase in the baseline benefit as of Oct. 1, are not going to significantly help low-income Vermonters’ buying power, according to Horton.

“It’s an increase; it’s not enough, but it’s much better than if they hadn’t taken any action at all,” Horton said.

Hunger Free Vermont hasn’t done research at this point on what the 3SquaresVT benefit should be in order to adequately subsidize nutritious meals for clients. But the Urban Institute — a national nonprofit research organization — has developed a table comparing the average SNAP benefit for each state with what it believes is the true, average cost for a meal. In Addison County, the average monthly SNAP benefit per meal is $1.97, but the average meal cost is $3.11, according to the Urban Institute.

Horton noted the upcoming SNAP benefit increase is fortunately timed to blunt the impact of the phase-out of the temporary COVID increases to the program.

“At least we’re not going to have a huge hunger ‘cliff’ for people to fall off when these waivers come to an end on Sept. 30,” she said. “Instead, people are going to experience, for the most part, a steady continuation of benefits. But they’re not going to experience an increase in benefits.”

And speaking of COVID-related waivers for federal food programs, another big one is due to expire on June 30, 2022. That’s when the feds are slated to stop paying for all public school children to have free breakfasts and lunches during the academic year. The “Free and Reduced Price School Meals” program will instead restart tying eligibility to 185% of the federal poverty guideline.

“If that (waiver) doesn’t become permanent in Vermont, we’re going to go back to the old system where 185% of the federal poverty guideline is your cutoff, and we’ll see up to 42% of the kids in Vermont who live in food-insecure households aren’t eligible for free and reduce school meals under that system,” Horton said. “That’s a huge problem.”

Horton and other advocates this winter will urge state lawmakers to call for universal school meals to become a permanent subsidy. And they’ll also call for loosening the eligibility requirements for SNAP.

“SNAP is the largest, the most effective and the most dignified way for us to address hunger for families and households in this country,” Horton said.

BASIC NEEDS BUDGET

Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office each year issues a “basic needs budget” that examines what it costs for families of different sizes to get by financially. That office found that for 2021, a family of four needs to earn at least 217% of the federal poverty guideline to meet its basic needs, according to Horton.

“We have many families in Vermont who are food-insecure,” Horton said. “We have families that are hungry, not getting enough food… and have not been eligible for SNAP.”

Jeanne Montross is executive director of the Middlebury nonprofit Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE), which helps low-income Addison County residents with food, clothing and other needs. She’s seen how important SNAP benefits are to her clients.

“The increase that is coming is very low,” she said. “Frankly, I don’t believe it comes close to keeping pace with the increased food costs we have seen.”

Montross agreed with Horton’s call for SNAP benefits to be extended to more people, and said HOPE has taken such a tack to cover folks who had been slipping through the social services safety net. HOPE now serves people at 200% of the federal poverty guideline; it had previously been 185%.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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