WORCESTER, Mass. — Inflation, high energy prices, skyrocketing rents. All of these things have been eating into food budgets in Massachusetts — and now low-income families are taking another hit.
In early March, the federal government will end extra SNAP payments that have been in place since the pandemic began. On average, those payments amounted to about $95 a month for eligible recipients. The extra cash was considered as not only a way to ease hunger — but as an economic stimulus, said Jean McMurray, CEO of the Worcester County Food Bank.
“For every dollar that is spent in a SNAP benefit it generates another dollar seventy in economic activity,” she said. “And that’s money that people take to the supermarket, they take it to farmers markets, they buy food, good food, for their families.”
But starting next month, they will have less money to spend. And with nowhere else to turn, food banks fear an influx of new clients — at a time when they’re already overwhelmed.
“This last calendar year of 2022, we saw a 30 percent increase in the number of people going to food pantries,” McMurray said. “And now with this loss of benefit, I just imagine the need is going to be something like we’ve never seen before.”
And food pantries could easily become overwhelmed.
In one year, the Worcester Food Pantry typically distributes around $14 million in donated food. But Worcester County is set to lose $12.4 million in monthly SNAP benefits because of the elimination of the extra payments.
And when it comes to impact, there’s no comparison between food banks and the SNAP program, said Gina Plata-Nino, SNAP Deputy Director at the Food Research and Action Center.
“For every meal that a food bank or food pantry does, SNAP does nine meals,” she said. “So there’s no private entity that can take the place of this program.”
But some private entities are willing to do their best to pick up the slack.
“There’s some panic amongst our clients about what they’re going to do,” said Heather Porreca, Vice-President of the Hebron Food Pantry in Attleboro. “Our expectations are to at least gain another hundred individuals and families over the next three months.”
That would be about a 25% increase in client base for the pantry.
“We’re not really sure how we’re going to be able to manage it,” Porreca said
One potential lifeline: Governor Maura Healey’s supplemental budget proposal — which allocates some money to replace the lost SNAP payments.
“That funding will help families to receive an additional three months of extra payments,” McMurray said. “But only 40 percent of what they’re receiving now.”
So it seems that no matter what happens at the state level, there could be some tough months ahead for SNAP recipients — especially considering how poorly those federal benefits actually covered family food needs in the first place.
“There’s just not enough money to go around and they don’t have enough money to feed their families on those benefits,” Porreca said. “And now with the removal of those extra benefits, it’s going to be harder.”
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