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'Back to one meal a day': SNAP benefits drop as food prices climb

The extra SNAP benefits are gone now as the government winds down its pandemic assistance programs.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
The extra SNAP benefits are gone now as the government winds down its pandemic assistance programs.

A lot of people don't think twice about buying milk, says Teresa Calderez. "But there are lots of us out here who can't buy a gallon of milk when we need it."

Teresa Calderez has never seen her nails look better.

"They were real split, cracked and dried," she said, fanning out her fingers. "And I noticed having eaten fresh vegetables and meats, you know, they look a lot better. They're not pretty, but they're healthier. And I think your nails say a lot about what your health is like."

Calderez is 63 and lives in Colorado Springs. Disabled and unable to work for years, she used to get a little over $20 a month in food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP. That would run out very quickly. But as one of the millions of Americans who got extra federal assistance during the pandemic, her balance jumped to $280 a month. She said she was finally able to eat whenever she felt hungry.

"You know, I feel better. I have a little more energy," she said.

Teresa Calderez says the extra SNAP benefits made a noticeable difference to her diet and her health.
/ Teresa Calderez
Teresa Calderez
Teresa Calderez says the extra SNAP benefits made a noticeable difference to her diet and her health.

But that extra money is gone now as the government winds down its pandemic assistance programs. The boosted benefits expired this month and payments are dropping by about $90 a month on average for individuals, and $250 or more for some families, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institute.

Calderez is now back to the minimum monthly payment: just $23 a month.

The reduction comes as food prices in the U.S. continue to rise. Without the extra help, many people will go hungry.

"I don't think people understand how much impact this relief had," said Raynah, who asked we not use her full name for personal safety reasons. "I was finally able to feed my child without the stress, without the worry, or the tears."

Raynah lives in a rural area in southern Oregon. She said that before the added benefits, she was also getting little more than $20 a month to feed herself and her son.

"At the beginning of the pandemic he was underweight," she said.

When SNAP payments went up, she was overjoyed to get an extra $500 to spend on food.

"Throughout the pandemic I was able to supplement his diet with protein drinks that cost $30, introduce new foods, let him choose and explore. And he is now on target weight. Even his doctors noticed."

The (dis)comfort zone

Faced with hunger and malnutrition again, people like Raynah don't have a lot of options.

"There is only one food bank here," she said. "It was already overflowing, even when the pandemic benefits were available. I can't even imagine how it will be now."

Food banks aren't a great option for Lisa Clenott, either.

"I would say 90% of it, we can't eat," she said.

Clenott lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts and said she and her two children have a lot of allergies. They're particularly sensitive to high fructose corn syrup.

"And that's in everything," she said.

Clenott said the supplemental SNAP benefits were a huge help to her family and she was able to buy healthy, filling food that worked for their food sensitivities. But even without stress at the grocery store, there was plenty of it elsewhere in her life.

"I have to pay the mortgage," she said. "I still co-own the house with my former husband, who isn't helping me at all. Plus my car is 20 years old and I have to pay for repairs on that."

She said she's been going into debt to cover bills for a while. And losing the SNAP extras won't help her there.

"I really don't know what we're gonna do," she said. "I've been trying to get through to the Department of Transitional Assistance but I've been put on hold for an hour and a half. And their website is ... well, it is what it is."

"We've seen this before"

Megan Sandel is a pediatrician and co-director of the Boston Medical Center's Grow Clinic, which focuses on treating malnutrition issues in kids. She sees a lot of heartbroken parents in her office.

"They're working sometimes two jobs," she said. "They have this, you know, young child that's not growing the way you would expect on the growth curve. And the mom will break down in tears and say, 'I just got my rent bill; landlord is increasing it; I can't keep up. And now I know that there's going to be one less tool in the toolbox to try and help this kid grow and get back on the growth curve.'"

Which goes hand in hand with the learning curve.

"In the first three years of life, you are in the most rapid growth period in terms of brain and body. And so when you're missing out on key nutrition, it's hard to catch up. It literally can be situations where we get to kids late and they're starting to struggle in school or they're not reading on time."

And for hints of long-term effects, look no further than the Great Recession. After Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, SNAP benefits went up for all recipients by at least 13.6%, according to Children's HealthWatch. The boost was meant to be temporary, but experts studying the benefits say it ended too soon to make its intended impact. A policy brief by Children's HealthWatch found:

Under ARRA, SNAP benefit levels were not intended to be adjusted again until food price inflation caught up with the increase, which was estimated to occur at the end of 2014...

On November 1st, 2013, monthly SNAP benefits for all program participants were cut. The total national cut was approximately $5 billion — decreasing the SNAP amount allotted per person from approximately $1.70 per meal to approximately $1.40 per meal. For a family of four the monthly benefit decreased by about $36, equivalent to about 21 meals per month. The effect of the decrease was not offset by funding other programs because a) young children do not benefit from school meals as they are not in school and b) school-age children need to eat nutritious meals outside of school hours as well as at school. Ultimately, by cutting SNAP to fund these programs, young children were placed at greater risk of food insecurity.

"We saw kids stop growing, being in fair-to-poor health and their caregivers being in fair-to-poor health," Sandel said. "So this is really a family issue. Think about what SNAP is. It's the largest anti-hunger program in the United States. It's an evidence-based tool for ensuring families put food on the table."

Back to hunger

The assistance programs of the pandemic era were working — not just to uphold communities affected by COVID-19, but as examples of how long-standing issues like food insecurity and unstable incomes could be addressed as a whole.

But that safety net is fading fast. Gone are the extra unemployment payments, free school lunches for all, and the extended child tax credit. According to the Department of Agriculture, SNAP cost $119 billion last year with the extra benefits. That would equate to about 2% of the national budget for the 2023 fiscal year.

Raynah in southern Oregon thinks the stigma around government assistance is stopping a lot of people — including those in charge — from being realistic about it.

"People are really closer to needing SNAP than they realize half the time," she said. "No one should ever face food insecurity."

But that will be unavoidable for many Americans now, including her and Teresa Calderez in Colorado Springs. Calderez said her rent went up and was already squeezing her budget, even with the SNAP benefits. Now, she has to give up the healthy diet she'd gotten used to.

"You know, buying a gallon of milk — a lot of people don't really give it another thought," she said. "But there are lots of us out here who can't buy a gallon of milk when we need it. I'm just going to have to go back to not eating very much, about a meal a day."

"Unfortunately, I have known hunger. And it's not a good feeling."

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Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.