‘A very dark time’: SNAP cuts leave Michigan families, food banks struggling

By: - March 19, 2023 4:44 am

Karen Palumbo, the volunteer and site coordinator at the LMTS Community Outreach Services’ food pantry in Lansing. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

It’s 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, which means Karen Palumbo is on the move. 

Cradling loaves of bread, she deftly maneuvers under the neon lights of the LMTS Community Outreach Services’ food pantry in Lansing as she stocks the shelves for the people who will start streaming through the doors in a matter of hours. 

These days, the number of families turning to the center for milk, bread, cereal, canned goods and more has been soaring — about 100 individuals come every day that the pantry is open, roughly double what it was just one year ago.

“It’s a combination of the government and the price of food being sky high right now,” said Palumbo, who previously went to the pantry for food herself before becoming its volunteer and site coordinator about half a year ago.

The meaning behind “the government” that Palumbo cites is a layered one, but essentially boils down to: Already struggling to buy food with government assistance, Michiganders (and Americans at large) are losing pandemic-related benefits and they’re turning to food banks and pantries to find their next meal. 

Following the sunset of the federal government’s pandemic-related programs like extended unemployment and rental assistance, about 1.3 million Michiganders will receive at least $95 less in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits beginning this month, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). 

After Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March 2020, the federal government provided additional SNAP benefits for the next three years before Congress passed a $1.7 trillion spending bill that ended the emergency food allotments for the 32 states that had still been accessing those benefits, including Michigan.

LMTS Community Outreach Services Executive Director Joshua Y. Gillespie II and Karen Palumbo, the volunteer and site coordinator at the LMTS food pantry in Lansing. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

According to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based left-leaning think tank, 1.35 million Michigan residents — or 13% of the state’s population — received SNAP benefits in 2022. Nationwide, 12% of the country’s population — 41.2 million individuals — accessed the food program in 2022. More than 80% of the country’s SNAP recipients are working families, people with disabilities or elderly individuals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which operates the SNAP program.

For those 1.3 million Michiganders, the decrease in SNAP benefits will be at least $95 per month — but can also be significantly more depending on a household’s circumstances, the DHHS said. 

For example, a single-person household with a net monthly income of $700 could see their total monthly SNAP benefit drop from $281 to $71, the DHHS said. A four-person household with a net income of $1,700 could see a drop from $939 to $429.

“These emergency allotments and other forms of COVID relief implemented to respond to the pandemic really were just bringing the benefits up to where they should have been for a long time,” said Julie Cassidy, a senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy. “It’s distressing to see back sliding on this. Now is not the time to go back. We’ve seen these allotments are critical for families.”

The end of the pandemic SNAP benefits has huge ramifications on food insecurity in Michigan, public policy experts said. For SNAP recipients, the decreased aid has immediate consequences and could further push people into poverty, experts emphasized.

“We are seeing need grow, whether that’s for food or other basic needs,” Cassidy said. “When a household falls on tough times and they have to make decisions between basic necessities, food is often the first thing to get cut from a budget. These additional dollars from the emergency SNAP allotment allowed them to keep up on rent, utilities and medicine.”

Now, that ability to pay for those items is being thrown into jeopardy.

“It’s not just the extra food assistance benefits — the state has run out of emergency rental assistance funds, the federal government has decided to end the public health emergency [in May] and that’s putting Medicaid coverage in jeopardy for a lot of people,” Cassidy said. “There’s definitely a cliff that families are going to be facing in the next few months.”

What I got from food stamps no way near covered what I could eat in a month. It’s quite a scary thing when you don’t have money for food.

– Karen Palumbo, volunteer and site coordinator at the LMTS Community Outreach Services’ food pantry in Lansing

The end of these benefits also comes at a time when researchers have documented that pandemic-related social programs left Americans in far better shape than many had predicted at the start of the pandemic.

“I want to stress how incredibly successful the expansion of the safety net was during the COVID crisis — the expansion of SNAP, extended unemployment insurance, the expanded child tax credit, as well as rental assistance,” said H. Luke Shaefer, director of University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions, an initiative that aims to prevent and alleviate poverty. “This was a remarkable expansion of the safety net, and it really saved millions of families across the country, and many, many families here in Michigan, from the types of hardships I expected when we started COVID.

“We didn’t see the tidal waves of evictions we expected; we didn’t see the huge increase in food insecurity; food insecurity hit its lowest level ever in families with kids,” Shaefer continued.

However, now that these benefits are ending, “food insecurity’s been going up; people are more likely to fall behind on their rent; evictions are starting to pick up,” Shaefer said. “It’s really going to impact families in Michigan, the loss of the SNAP allotment. That’s going to come as a shock. It already is.”

The end of these pandemic policies translates to a deeply detrimental impact on people’s day-to-day lives, Shaefer said — and it’s one that leaves people barely keeping their heads above water. 

“We are in the midst of heading into a very dark time with families struggling,” he said. 

At LMTS Community Outreach Services in Lansing, that “very dark time” is evident, Executive Director Joshua Y. Gillespie II said. 

As the cost of food escalates — it went up by 9.9% in 2022, according to the USDA, and has continued to climb in 2023 — Michiganders who are retirees, working low-wage jobs or have been laid off often find themselves faced with soaring grocery bills that they’re unable to afford, Gillespie explained. In the wake of this, they’re turning to food pantries for help.

“This is the wrong time to cut SNAP; it’s the wrong time to cut these programs that have been so helpful,” Gillespie said, referring to other pandemic-related initiatives to assist individuals with rent, utilities and more. 

As food insecurity climbs in Michigan and across the country, Palumbo, a Lansing resident who received SNAP benefits after retiring from retail management, said she has no doubt her pantry will continue to see a rise in clients. As more people arrive, she will welcome them with open arms — as Palumbo said she was when she arrived at LMTS. This welcome, she emphasized, is something that she’ll never forget — facing hunger and needing to find food at a pantry was often demoralizing and to find a place that treats you with dignity is a rarity, Palumbo said.

“Food insecurity is going to eat something, and there’s nothing there,” she said. “If you rely on food stamps based on income level, you really cannot survive. Food banks are providing main meals for people. I needed the food bank to eat.

“What I got from food stamps no way near covered what I could eat in a month,” Palumbo continued, using the colloquial term for SNAP benefits. “It’s quite a scary thing when you don’t have money for food.”

 

‘A perfect storm’

As more Michiganders face food insecurity following a decrease in pandemic assistance, they are turning to the state’s food banks and pantries — leaders from which said they’re preparing for a mass influx of people seeking their help.

Across Michigan, the heads of food banks — nonprofits that collect and distribute food to pantries and other community sites throughout the state — would often repeat a phrase while being interviewed about the impact the end of the pandemic SNAP benefits is having on them: “a perfect storm.” 

In other words: They are struggling. And they don’t expect that to end any time soon.

As Michiganders’ need for food increases, food banks are seeing less food from the USDA — historically one of their main sources of food — as the government agency navigates national and global supply chain issues occurring in the wake of the pandemic and Russia’s war against Ukraine. Food banks also are experiencing a drop in donations as COVID-19 recedes from people’s minds, and inflation has left them with rising food costs at a time when they have to purchase far more food on their own due to the decline in USDA aid.

“We had a bit of leveling off between the height of the pandemic, when everyone was losing their jobs, and then in 2021 we leveled off,” Michelle Lantz, the chief executive officer at the Greater Lansing Food Bank, said of the number of people served by her organization. “In 2022, we started seeing this uptick again to the levels we saw at the height of the pandemic. And we’re bracing for another increase.”

This expected increase in the wake of pandemic SNAP benefits ending comes as the Greater Lansing Food Bank, which distributes food to about 150 agencies — such as pantries and mobile food distribution sites — in seven counties, has already seen a recent rise in client numbers. 

These emergency allotments and other forms of COVID relief implemented to respond to the pandemic really were just bringing the benefits up to where they should have been for a long time. It’s distressing to see back sliding on this. Now is not the time to go back. We’ve seen these allotments are critical for families.

– Julie Cassidy, a senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy

The organization served about 13,000 households a month at the end of 2022 — approximately 30% more than the year before. Now, with pandemic benefits ending, that percentage could soar to as much as 50% or more, said Kelly Miller, the Greater Lansing Food Bank’s philanthropy director.

At the same time, the amount of USDA food coming to food banks across Michigan has been on the decline. In 2022, the amount of food that the Greater Lansing Food Bank received from the USDA dropped by about 50%. At the height of the pandemic, the food bank received about 450,000 pounds a month from the USDA — by October 2022, that was down to 92,000 pounds. Much of that, Lantz and Miller explained, was due to supply chain issues.

“We doubled the amount [of food] we were purchasing” because of the drop in USDA aid, Lantz said. 

For the Lansing food bank, that meant about 35% of the food they distributed at the end of 2022 was bought by them — a jump from the prior year’s 17%. The organization is now spending about $750,000 each quarter to purchase food.

A USDA spokesperson wrote in an email to the Advance that the agency’s ability to make deliveries to food banks has been impacted by supply chain challenges and rising food prices.

Additionally, the USDA noted in its statement to the Advance that it was previously able to send additional food to food banks because of an increase in one-time funds during the pandemic. These funds came from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act; the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act; and the Build Back Better Act.

The USDA said the agency is spending nearly $1 billion to “support additional food purchases for distribution to emergency food organizations beginning in Fiscal Year 2023.” Deliveries from that funding began in February and will continue through September 2023 — meaning food aid organizations should see an increase in fresh, frozen and shelf stable foods. 

Other efforts are being made to address food insecurity across the country, including in Michigan, the agency said. In December, the USDA announced a second round of $60 million grants from the agency’s The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). The first round of $40 million in grants was distributed in 2022, including an award to the Michigan Department of Education for $1.27 million.

Trucks deliver food to the Greater Lansing Food Bank’s warehouse in Bath, Mich. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Another $500 million has been allocated to allow states and tribes to directly purchase local foods for distribution through emergency food providers. In October 2022, the USDA announced it had signed a cooperative agreement with Michigan that allows the state Department of Education to use the federal dollars to purchase and distribute locally grown food.

Any future increase in food deliveries from the USDA will be welcomed, especially as pandemic benefits end, said Kristin Sokul, the senior director of advancement, communications, marketing and media/public relations at Gleaners Community Food Bank in Detroit. 

“When there’s a benefits decrease, that need doesn’t go away; it transfers,” said Sokul, whose organization served about 600,000 households last year. “We are expecting at the food bank we’re going to see an increase in people seeking resources from us.”

As with other food banks throughout the state and country, Gleaners has seen a drop in food from the USDA as more people have come to them for help.

“In 2022 we saw a higher need than in 2021,” Sokul said. “While the pandemic programs were ending for individuals and food banks, we saw need go up and government-donated food continue to go down at significant levels.”

In the first year of the pandemic, Gleaners distributed about 64 million pounds of food. Last year, the food bank gave out about 47 million pounds of food. This year, Gleaners expects they’ll have 39 million pounds of food to distribute.

“That doesn’t reflect that need has gone down that significantly,” Sokul said.

Rather, those numbers indicate the drop in food the group saw from the federal government.

At the height of the pandemic, the Detroit food bank received about 2.4 million pounds of food per month from the USDA. That sunk to 260,000 pounds per month at the beginning of this year.

“You see a perfect storm brewing,” Sokul said. “People are still reeling from the pandemic; now they’re trying to manage a budget with increased costs, and they’re doing it at a time of year that’s already expensive because of increased utilities cost.”

We are in the midst of heading into a very dark time with families struggling.

– H. Luke Shaefer, the director of University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions

At the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan in Flint, which works with about 700 food distribution sites in 22 counties, the group went from distributing 30 million pounds of food before the pandemic to 50 million pounds of food during the early days of COVID-19, according to the group’s president and CEO, Kara Ross.

Now, the organization is “back to about 35 million,” Ross said.

As Sokul emphasized, that decrease is not indicative of lesser need but rather of diminished supply from the USDA.

“We can’t replace what was provided with pandemic relief from the government,” Ross said. “We’re trying to provide as much as we can with what we can afford to do. We’re spending more than we have in years on purchased food product, but we have to balance that with how much we have coming in with donations.” 

To address the steep challenges they’re currently facing, food bank leaders said they hope Congressional leaders will focus on additional funding for SNAP as they deliberate over the 2023 Farm Bill. Currently, Democratic lawmakers have pushed more funding for SNAP in the legislation, while Republicans have urged more restrictions for SNAP eligibility.

“We definitely need to be looking to the future on how amounts are decided for SNAP benefits,” Ross said. “We need to make sure we’re increasing that to the level that’s effective for a family.”

Ross noted that many of the Flint-based food bank’s clients “are working two to three jobs” and still need to access food from them.

Lantz, of the Greater Lansing Food Bank, also encouraged Congress to increase SNAP funding in the Farm Bill — a sweeping piece of legislation that lawmakers typically renew once every five years.

At the state level, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is also pushing for added funding to address food insecurity. 

In addition to the $2.05 million for the Food Bank Council of Michigan in Whitmer’s proposed Fiscal Year 2024 budget, the governor’s office said Whitmer is tackling hunger by rolling back the retirement tax and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This, the governor has said, will put extra dollars into people’s pockets, allowing them to buy more food. Whitmer signed legislation last week to repeal the retirement tax and boost the EITC.

The administration also noted that the proposed budget includes $160 million to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all of Michigan’s 1.4 million public school students and $16 million for the Fair Food Network Double Up Food Bucks program. That program doubles the value of EBT payments — which SNAP recipients use to pay for food — when individuals purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at various grocery stores and farmers markets.

“For Michiganders to succeed, they need to know that their basic needs are met — a safe home and quality meal are basic tenets of the American dream,” said Whitmer spokesperson Stacey LaRouche. “That’s why the governor allocated $2 million in her budget proposal to the Food Bank Council of Michigan to support the critical work they do feeding Michiganders.”

Following Whitmer announcing her proposed budget in February, legislative leaders offer their own budget proposals before negotiating with the governor. A finalized budget is due in July, but there is no penalty if Whitmer does not sign bills by that time.

Volunteers work at the Greater Lansing Food Bank’s warehouse in Bath, Mich. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

‘Are you going to eat or pay your rent?”

As federal and state lawmakers move through their budget processes, those working directly with Michiganders who are food insecure want them to remember: These are real people, facing real hunger, who are impacted by their decisions. 

The budget numbers filling Excel sheets and press releases: They translate to people living and dying, those working at food banks and pantries said. 

“Those who are economically deprived, they have to make decisions: Are you going to eat or pay your rent? Are you going to eat or pay your utilities?” Gillespie said. “Those are decisions that people have to make. Sometimes, the first thing to go is food. ‘I can’t feed my children what they need because I’d rather them be in a house than not.’ That’s why it’s so important for us to have food pantries.”

As they have for years, Gillespie, Palumbo and everyone working at their Lansing food pantry will continue to spend time with those coming to them for help. They will listen to a stream of stories: Words of anguish and perseverance and a determination to get by.

The people who line up outside food pantries every day in Michigan are there because they have lost their jobs, because they are retired and are struggling to get by, because they are sick and have spent most of their savings on health care, Gillespie said. They are there because their own pantries are bare and they need help.

LMTS Community Outreach Services Executive Director Joshua Y. Gillespie II | Photo by Anna Gustafson

“We’re helping the working poor, those who were doing quite well last year but then, because of COVID, their restaurant closed down, those whose employment changed and they need additional support to make ends meet,” Gillespie said. 

Palumbo knows this well: She knows what that term “food insecurity” means in real life; she knows how hunger transfixes you and leaves you feeling deeply defeated. And she knows of the life-changing safety that comes from places where you can connect with people who understand you’re not asking for a handout. You’re searching to survive.

As more people begin to face food insecurity in the wake of pandemic programs ending, Palumbo wants them to remember: There is no shame in asking for help. And for those in power who are able to ensure that help not only exists but grows — and tackles the issues underlying hunger and food insecurity — she hopes they do so.

“I was extremely food insecure, and I started out coming here [LMTS Community Outreach Services] as one of the customers in line, and I did that for many, many months,” Palumbo said.

“I came every week and twice a week when I could because they’re so wonderful; they’re so loving.

“They make you feel so human, so loved, so normal,” she continued. “It’s just normal to help people in dire need.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.

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