Local food banks, pantries prepare as extra pandemic-era benefits end
Patti Dudock didn’t see a larger-than-average turnout for free groceries earlier this month, but she expects to see a difference in her rural township on Thursday.
“It’s not going to smack everyone in the face right away,” she said.
People who rely on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or food stamps, won’t receive extra payments this month. Congress voted last year to discontinue second monthly payments this February, nearly three years after approving emergency allotments at the beginning of the pandemic.
Dudock runs the Lawton Mobile Food Pantry, a drive-thru service that operates out of a social hall in Susquehanna County’s Rush Twp. Trucks from the Weinberg Northeast Regional Food Bank deliver produce and packaged goods to the pantry. Volunteers then prepare and distribute grocery bags for about 140 families on the first and third Thursday of each month.
“People cannot be ashamed or embarrassed to reach out to pantries,” Dudock said in an interview with WVIA News on Wednesday. “You’re not getting a handout. You’re paying your heating bill, you’re paying your electric bill, but prices have gone up on everything.”
Food banks and pantries in the region are urging people to accept help now that those extra payments won’t be showing up in their benefit accounts.
“As the pandemic has progressed, we’ve really seen in real time how much those extra supports that were put in place have made a very big difference for our neighbors in need,” said Amy Hill, director of community engagement and advocacy at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank (CPFB).
Average monthly benefits are expected to fall by 40% – or $105 per person – in the CPFB service area, according to a recent report from the organization.
Based on those projections, CPFB said they’ve been preparing for months to make sure they’re ready to supply pantries in case there’s a surge in demand. With offices in Williamsport and Harrisburg, CPFB works with a network of about 1,200 smaller pantries in community centers and churches throughout their service area.
“We think that the people who might feel the pinch the most are those on the higher end of the income spectrum. They’re likely people who are working full-time, maybe two jobs even,” Hill said, adding that “a significant majority” of people who visit food pantries are employed.
But families might have seen changes in employment status or household sizes over the last three years, Hill said. That means some people might need to rely on food pantries for the first time.
Hill said reaching out to organizations like CPFB – plus other regional groups like Weinberg Northeast Regional and Second Harvest food banks – could help families find a local pantry they didn’t know about.
Gretchen Hunt is the director of nutrition programs at the Weinberg Northeast Regional Food Bank. She said some people in Weinberg’s service area of Lackawanna, Luzerne, Wyoming and Susquehanna counties might feel uncomfortable going to a pantry even though they could use the support.
“In our rural communities, people often are proud and don’t want to come out and accept help when they need it,” Hunt said during a WVIA discussion on food insecurity in October.
But hundreds of thousands of people in Northeast and Central Pennsylvania are eligible for food assistance benefits, with close 2 million people qualifying across the commonwealth. In January, there were nearly 70,000 SNAP-eligible adults in Luzerne County, according to the most-recent data from the state’s Department of Human Services.
Some Pennsylvanians have already seen lower SNAP payments this year, namely seniors whose Social Security income got a cost-of-living increase in January, possibly bumping them down to a lower food benefit tier. That’s according to the Wright Center for Community Health, which plans to distribute food to seniors in April alongside Bread Basket of NEPA.
At the state level, Gov. Josh Shapiro’s recent budget proposal aims to increase minimum SNAP benefits by 52% with a $16 million investment. On the federal side, some advocates are pushing for changes in this year’s farm bill that would affect SNAP eligibility.
“A significant part of [the bill] is nutrition programs, and SNAP is part of that,” Hill said, adding that governments at the state and national level have opportunities to make changes in coming months.
In the meantime, regional food banks and local pantries hope to keep residents’ refrigerators and cupboards filled as public health emergency benefits sunset.
Find a pantry in the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank service area here.
Local pantries in the Weinberg Northeast Regional Food Bank can be found here.
More information on food resources also available at the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services’ website.