Emily Rice Published

Unwinding Medicaid: Changes To SNAP Worry Food Security Advocates

A grocery store aisle is pictured with a wide lens, showing both sides and the photographer's grocery cart.Patrick Strattner/Getty Images

Starting March 1, some struggling families may have less government support for food as COVID-19 pandemic-era emergency allotments come to a close.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, provide temporary help for people going through hard times by providing supplemental money to buy food until they can get back on their feet.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 37.3 percent of West Virginia households receiving SNAP benefits have children.

Since April 2020, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources has issued SNAP emergency allotments, increasing each household’s monthly benefit.

Now, those monthly SNAP benefits have returned to the pre-COVID-19 Public Health Emergency level based on the household’s income, assets, household size, and other non-financial factors. About 170,000 households will be affected.

“Early on in the pandemic, Congress and the USDA, allowed states to increase everyone’s SNAP benefits up to the maximum level, regardless of what they would normally be qualified for based on their household income, assets and expenses,” said Kent Nowviskie, deputy commissioner of the DHHR’s Bureau for Family Assistance. “As a result of the omnibus spending bill, the Consolidated Appropriations Act that was passed in December, Congress brought that portion of the snap or that option for states to an end.”

According to Nowviskie, Congress plans to repurpose the funding of emergency allotments to allow states to set up a permanent ongoing summer EBT program for children who are eligible for free and reduced lunch in schools.

“SNAP benefits come directly from the federal government, and we disperse those to the clients in West Virginia. So essentially, those are federal monies, we determine eligibility according to a state plan that is essentially like a contract between the state and the USDA, for how will determine that eligibility. And then on a monthly basis, we draw down those funds from the federal government and push them out to eligible SNAP clients,” Nowviskie said. “We do have other sources of funding that support some nutritional efforts. One of the big ones is our TANF funding, which we have used to vastly expand some of the supports that we have available across the state.”

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, is also known as WV Works, a program assisting families near the poverty level to remain self-sufficient.

Advocates and officials are warning that upcoming changes to SNAP benefits could put West Virginia households and food banks in jeopardy.

“So, according to the DHHR, all households will see at least a $95 reduction, statewide, the average per household is going to be around $120 reduction,” said Josh Lohnes, a research assistant professor at WVU who directs the work of the food justice lab and the center for resilient communities. “And again, that’s based on size and income. So for some households, it may be hundreds of dollars reduced, and for others, it might be less, but every single household is at least gonna see a $95 cut in March.”

These changes will not only affect West Virginia families directly but food banks across the state as well.

“Food insecurity is pretty much a poverty problem and a low wage problem, the vast majority of those receiving SNAP benefits are working families that are simply not earning enough wages to be above 130 percent of the poverty line,” Lohnes said. “So that drives food insecurity, and low wages, as do increasing food prices.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a one-person household that earns $14,580 or less annually is considered to be in poverty. A three-person household is considered in poverty if they earn $24,860 or less annually.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index, food inflation rates rose an average of 11 percent in December 2022 alone.

Cyndi Kirkhart is the CEO of Facing Hunger Food Bank, based in Huntington. It is one of only two food banks in West Virginia. The other is Mountaineer Food Bank, based in Gassaway. 

Food insecurity will only increase along with inflation costs, Kirkhart said she budgeted $2.5 million to purchase food for the Facing Hunger Food Bank in 2022. The bank actually expended $4 million to feed its community.

“That’s not sustainable for our work. We’re having to really kind of scale back and rather than prepackaged boxes, that we’ve distributed, our mobile pantries and stuff, now we’re getting down to staple items that will benefit a family,” Kirkhart said. “So at a time when the communities at the center of our work need us most, we actually are having to scale back in what we can provide to them as well as our pantries.”

According to advocates for food security, charitable programs are unable to support those facing hunger fully. A combination of charity and government assistance programs are necessary to help bridge the meal gap, especially in a post-COVID economy with record-breaking inflation rates.

“I can’t underscore enough, while the rhetoric may be that folks receive all kinds of money with SNAP benefits, that is patently not true,” Kirkhart said. “It is not enough for any family, to be able to live alone. It takes other financial resources to support a family and their food needs. All you have to do is try the SNAP challenge one time and try and live on what is about $4.20 a day.”

To mitigate food insecurity for West Virginia families, Nowviskie said the DHHR was able to use TANF funding to increase the number of family support centers throughout West Virginia. He said 37 centers were added to the grant cycle in 2022. 

“And those are physical locations that offer a variety of services from respite for caregivers, to parenting classes, some of them do cooking, education, financial education, those sorts of things,” Nowviskie said. “They all also are required by the grant agreement with us to maintain a food pantry, a baby pantry, and a hygiene pantry.”

Furthermore, Nowviskie said any West Virginia family struggling with food insecurity after this rollback of SNAP benefits can contact their local county DHHR office and speak with a caseworker about options or visit the agency’s website for a list of resources.