When the largest-ever increase in food stamp benefits goes into effect in October, the additional assistance should ease the burden on struggling households. But continued support for local safety-net programs is essential to ensure families and individuals have enough to eat.
Benefits paid through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, are set to increase by $36 a month. Eligible households currently receive $121 a month per person, so the increase works out to about 40 cents a meal. Carmen Cumberland, president and CEO of Community Harvest, said she thinks SNAP benefits, along with the expanded child tax credit, likely have contributed to declining demand at some of the food bank's distribution points. Since December, federal COVID relief assistance has temporarily expanded food stamp benefits.
The Saturday Helping Hands drive-through distribution at the Tillman Road warehouse is one Community Harvest program serving fewer residents.
“During the height of COVID last year, we were seeing upwards of 1,300 cars at any given time,” she said. “For probably the last two and a half, three months, it has been lower than before COVID. Last week I think we had 543; the week before we had 444.”
Community Harvest's Senior Pack program, in which food is distributed every other week, is another.
“(We've had) three seniors go off the plan, probably within the last couple of weeks,” Cumberland said. “They said it's because they're getting an increase in their SNAP benefits, that they don't need to utilize our program at this time. That's good if they can self-sustain on those benefits.”
Some observers believe the permanent increase in SNAP benefits – the first since 2006 – will go far to address poverty.
“Plain and simple, this is totally a game-changing moment,” Jamie Bussel, a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told the Washington Post last week. “The changes have enormous potential to reduce, and potentially eliminate, child hunger and poverty in this country. This will reflect much more accurately what food actually costs in communities.”
Emily Weikert Bryant, executive director of Feeding Indiana's Hungry, said the increased federal benefit will have a significant impact.
“It's being spent – it's not being saved, it's not cash value, it's food, and it's going right back into the communities,” she told the Indianapolis Star. “So, for those extra few million dollars that Indiana's likely to see, that's going back into our economy.”
More than 80% of SNAP recipients are either single or members of a working family, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In July, 624,959 Hoosiers received SNAP benefits, down from 650,392 in July 2020, according to data from the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. There was a slight increase in recipient numbers for Allen County, from 39,800 in July 2020 to 39,966 last month.
Cumberland said distribution numbers at Community Harvest's Farm Wagon sites have remained steady. The mobile pantries distribute fresh produce and dairy in low-income areas of nine northeast Indiana counties.
Community Harvest isn't immune from the effects of the current labor shortage. Cumberland said the food bank couldn't buy certain items for its afterschool program for kids because suppliers to Gordon Food Service, where Community Harvest buys for the program, are short on workers.
The uptick in COVID-19 cases also is causing some volunteer groups to cancel events supporting the food bank as Community Harvest moves toward the holidays, its busiest season.
“The one thing I keep telling people is to check on your neighbors,” Cumberland said. “Especially during these times, you never know who's going without.”
That's especially true as many COVID-related benefit programs are set to expire next month. While a larger federal benefit will ease the pain, northeast Indiana residents with the means to help should do so.
How to help
Support Community Harvest Food Bank by donating food, volunteering, hosting a food drive or with a cash donation, online at communityharvest.org/donate or by mail at Community Harvest Food Bank, PO Box 10967, Fort Wayne, IN 46855-0967.
Support Associated Churches Neighborhood Food Network, online at associatedchurches.org/donate or by mail at Associated Churches, 602 E. Wayne St., Fort Wayne, IN 46802.