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Teresa Calderez has never seen her nails better.
“They were really split and cracked and dry,” he said, spreading his fingers. “And I realized having eaten fresh vegetables and meats, you know, they look so much better. They’re not pretty, but they’re healthier. And I think your nails say a lot about how healthy you are.”
Calderez is 63 years old and lives in Colorado Springs. Disabled and unable to work for years, she used to receive just over $20 a month in food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP. That would sell out very quickly. But as one of the millions of Americans who received additional federal assistance during the pandemic, her balance increased to $280 per month. She said that she could finally eat whenever she was hungry.
“You know, I feel better. I have a little more energy,” he said.
But that extra money is gone now that the government scales back its pandemic assistance programs. The increased benefits expired this month and payments are being cut by about $90 a month on average for individuals and $250 or more for some families, according to a analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Prioritiesa nonpartisan research institute.
Calderez is now back to the minimum monthly payment: just $23 per month.
The reduction comes as Food prices in the US continue to rise. Without the additional help, many people will go hungry.
“I don’t think people understand how much of an impact this relief had,” said Raynah, who asked that her full name not be used for personal safety reasons. “I was finally able to feed my son without stress, without worries or tears.”
Raynah lives in a rural area of southern Oregon. She said that before the extra benefits, he also received just over $20 a month to feed her and her child.
“At the beginning of the pandemic I was underweight,” he said.
When SNAP payments increased, she was very happy to get an extra $500 to spend on food.
“During the pandemic I was able to supplement his diet with $30 protein drinks, introduce new foods, let him choose and explore. And now he’s at his ideal weight. Even his doctors noticed.”
The (un)comfort zone
Faced with hunger and malnutrition again, people like Raynah don’t have many options.
“There is only one food bank here,” he said. “I was already overwhelmed, even when the benefits of the pandemic were available. I can’t even imagine what it will be like now.”
Food banks are also not a great option for Lisa Clenott.
“I would say 90% of us can’t eat,” he said.
Clenott lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts and said that she and her two children have many allergies. They are particularly sensitive to high fructose corn syrup.
“And that’s in everything,” he said.
Clenott said the SNAP supplemental benefits were a great help to her family and she was able to buy healthy, filling foods that worked for her food sensitivities. But even without stress at the grocery store, there was plenty in other parts of her life.
“I have to pay the mortgage,” he said. “I still co-own the house with my ex-husband, who doesn’t help me at all. Also, my car is 20 years old and I have to pay for repairs.”
She said she’s been going into debt to cover the bills for a while. And losing the SNAP extras won’t help her there.
“I really don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said. “I’ve been trying to contact the Department of Transitional Assistance, but they’ve put me 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 problems in children. She sees many bereaved parents in her office.
“Sometimes they have two jobs,” he said. “They’ve got this, you know, little boy who’s not growing the way you’d expect on the growth curve. And the mom will burst into tears and say, ‘I just got my rent bill; the landlord is raising it; I can’t keep up. And now I know there will be one less tool in the toolbox to try to help this kid grow up and get back on the growth curve.'”
Which goes hand in hand with the learning curve.
“In the first three years of life, you’re in the fastest growing period in terms of your brain and body. So when you’re missing out on key nutrition, it’s hard to catch up. It can literally be situations where we we put the kids in late and they’re starting to struggle in school or they’re not reading on time.
And for signs of long-term effects, look no further than the Great Recession. After Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, SNAP benefits increased for all recipients by at least 13.6%. according to Children’s HealthWatch. The boost was meant to be temporary, but experts who study the benefits say it ended too soon to have the desired impact. TO policy brief by Children’s HealthWatch found:
According to 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 in late 2014…
On November 1, 2013, monthly SNAP benefits were reduced for all program participants. The total national cut was approximately $5 billion, which reduced the amount of SNAP allocated per person from approximately $1.70 per meal to approximately $1.40 per meal. For a family of four, the monthly benefit was reduced by about $36, which is equivalent to about 21 meals a month. The effect of the decrease was not offset by funding from other programs because a) young children do not benefit from school meals because they are not in school and b) school-age children need to eat nutritious meals outside of school hours and at the school. . Ultimately, by cutting SNAP to fund these programs, young children were put at greater risk of food insecurity.
“We saw children stop growing, have fair to poor health, and their caregivers have fair to poor health,” Sandel said. “So this is really a family issue. Think about what SNAP is. It’s the largest hunger program in the United States. It’s an evidence-based tool to make sure families put food on the table.”
return to hunger
The assistance programs of the pandemic era we are working — not just to support communities affected by COVID-19, but as examples of how longstanding issues like food insecurity and income instability can be addressed together.
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 Agriculture department, SNAP cost $119 billion last year with the added benefits. That would equate to about 2% of the national budget for fiscal year 2023.
Raynah, in southern Oregon, believes the stigma around government assistance is preventing many people, including those in charge, from being realistic about it.
“People are actually closer to needing SNAP than they think half the time,” he said. “No one should ever face food insecurity.”
But that will be inevitable for many Americans now, including her and Teresa Calderez in Colorado Springs. Calderez said her rent went up and she was already stretching her budget, even with SNAP benefits. Now, she has to give up the healthy diet that she had become accustomed to.
“You know, buying a gallon of milk, a lot of people don’t really think about it,” he said. “But there are a lot of us here who can’t buy a gallon of milk when we need it. I’m going to have to go back to not eating much, about one meal a day.”
“Unfortunately, I’ve known hunger. And it’s not a good feeling.”