Since April 2020, families eligible for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have been receiving an extra $95 each month as part of COVID emergency allotments. This extra assistance expires February 28th, which means that beginning in March families with SNAP benefits will receive $95 less per month.
SNAP, formerly called food stamps, is a federal program that provides money for food to households with very low income. The stipulations for spending are strict — for example, you can buy “any food or food product for human consumption, and seeds and plants for use in home gardens to produce food,” but you cannot buy “hot foods ready to eat, food intended to be heated in the store, lunch counter items or foods to be eaten in the store.” (What’s the difference between SNAP and WIC and what’s EBT? Here’s a short guide.)
The financial eligibility threshold to receive SNAP benefits is extremely low, which ends up disqualifying people who are unable to afford sufficient nutrition.
SNAP is a state-administered federal program which means our local agencies are limited in their ability to influence the programs or the ways those funds are allocated. Eligibility criteria are all determined by the federal government. Local agencies primarily assist people in finding the correct office or contact information for the state agencies that administer the funds. Eligibility is a hard rule, and local agencies can serve as essential translators and field guides through the bureaucracy, to help people navigate the system. As with most governmental programs, the websites are not user-friendly, the rules can be confusing, and you need a lot of documentation to prove your eligibility.
Of course, this is a huge problem. Dealing with obtuse and outdated systems is annoying to even the most savvy and time-wealthy users. But imagine you don’t have reliable internet access, or hours to spend collecting documents and making accounts and uploading information. The system then becomes impenetrable.
Because SNAP is a federal program, it’s easy to track how many people use it. US Census Bureau stats from 2021 (the latest official numbers) indicate that just over 9% of Champaign County residents use the program. That’s 84,248 households. That’s households, not individuals. It’s reasonable to assume that many of those households have more than one person, and perhaps children.
Since April 2020, 84,000-ish households in our county have been receiving an additional $95 per month as part of their SNAP benefits. In light of rising inflation, coupled with agricultural and supply chain issues, that $95 is necessary just to meet the soaring prices of many food items. Eggs are the most recognizable example here. A dozen eggs at Meijer will cost about $4 right now; at one point in 2020 you could find them for about $2. And while it seems obvious to anyone who has had to buy anything in the last three years, it’s worth repeating: everything is more expensive, and your money doesn’t go as far. To match the buying power of $95 in April 2020, you’d need $110 today.
With the end of the SNAP emergency allotment, many households that have been getting by will no longer be able to do that.
What can we do to help vulnerable households in Champaign County? We can support the programs that are already supporting them. SNAP benefits can be doubled at the Champaign-Urbana Winter Farmers Market. Shoppers are given tokens for the amount swiped from their LINK / EBT card (the debit card for SNAP benefits); winter market tokens expire April 30th. From May through October, Urbana’s Market at the Square will triple the swipe, and those tokens can be used at the market and at Common Ground Food Co-op. The doubling program is made possible by Link Up Illinois; you can donate to that program here.
Other programs to help feed those in need include free breakfast and lunch programs in both Champaign Unit 4 and Urbana District 116. We also have food banks and soup kitchens in our community. You can check with organizations on the University of Illinois campus and in the community to see if they accept donations or need volunteers.
We know that this country is not willing to take care of its most vulnerable populations. Does it have to be the same for the state, Champaign County, or our cities? Can we do something locally that fosters a culture and community of care? As we prepare to vote in our local elections, let us think about the folks on the ballot and whether or not they are prioritizing the same values we hold.
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Mara Thacker.