Food stamp recipients have just gotten the first substantial, permanent boost in monthly benefits in four decades, a change that both they and hunger experts agree is needed to address Maine’s high food insecurity rates and give those in need better access to nutritious food.

The largest single increase in the history of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program comes at a critical time for the state, which has persistent problems with childhood hunger and multi-generational food insecurity. More Mainers regularly go without meals than food-insecure people in nearly every other state. 

In a change that began this past Friday, Oct. 1, SNAP recipients will see an average increase of $36.24 per person each month, or $1.19 a day. Proponents say the increase is long overdue.

The previous benefit amount “wasn’t enough for people to get by on, especially when you’re looking at households that have to pay rent or a mortgage or child care expenses,” said Izzy Ostrowski, social change advocate at the Portland-based nonprofit social services agency Preble Street and leader of the Maine Hunger Initiative, which formed in 2008 to address the root causes of hunger in the community. “It’s great that it is happening, but we still need to push for more investments in hunger and food insecurity.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reevaluated its Thrifty Food Plan, the model diet used to project the cost of food for one month that is the basis for SNAP benefits. The resulting cost adjustment marks the first time the purchasing power of the plan has changed since 1975.

Early in the pandemic, when people in Maine and across the country were heading to food pantries in record numbers, the USDA announced a 15 percent increase in benefits for SNAP households. All households that received less than the maximum benefit got an emergency allotment supplement to bring them up to the maximum, which was around $768 a month for a five-member family.

Hunger prevention advocates in Maine say that extra income gave many people stability they did not previously have.

“We heard immediately from our partners that they were seeing a pullback in need because of that. They were even checking in with people they hadn’t seen in a while to make sure they were OK,” said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn. “They were hearing from people that because their SNAP benefits were increased, they were food-secure for the first time ever.”

That emergency funding was temporary. The new adjustments aren’t.

It took a pandemic for SNAP to finally get funded where it needed to be,” Miale said.

SNAP helps feed more than 42 million Americans – 1 in 8 people – each month. Experts say the evidence is clear that the program increases food security, particularly among households with children that have been disproportionately impacted by hunger during the pandemic.

The number of people Maine enrolled in the food supplement program rose steadily in the early months of the pandemic, from over 167,000 in February 2020 to a peak of nearly 177,000 that May. Just over 164,000 individuals were enrolled in the program as of this August.

But experts estimate that about 40 percent of people in Maine who experience food insecurity don’t qualify for programs like SNAP, because their incomes are too high but they still need help getting enough to eat.

A USDA report released last month indicates that Maine’s overall rate of food insecurity has been dropping, from 13.6 percent of households between 2015 and 2017 to 11.4 percent between 2018 and 2020. Still, that’s above the national rate of 10.7 percent.

Maine has the fifth highest rate of “very low food security” in the nation, with 5.5 percent of Maine households – more than 31,000 – experiencing a more severe level of hunger that includes regularly missing meals. Nationally, 4.1 percent of households experience very low food security, according to the report.

Maine also has the highest rate of childhood hunger in New England, with about 1 in 5 children experiencing food insecurity. Nationwide, the rate of food insecurity for households with children increased from 13.6 percent in 2019 to 14.8 percent in 2020, according to the USDA.

Carolyn Silvius is on SSI disability and receives $234 each month through SNAP to help with food costs. She believes SNAP needs to be increased so people can afford healthy food. She made a recipe book years ago to help stretch the food that she got through food stamps. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

While the COVID-19 pandemic initially caused an acute hunger crisis, Miale said, this new data from the USDA indicates that predicted “catastrophic rates of food insecurity were avoided in 2020 thanks to expansions to SNAP and school nutrition programming.”

The federal P-EBT and Summer P-EBT programs provided families with children who receive SNAP or qualify for free or reduced-price school meals with extra money for groceries to cover the meals their children were missing at school.

The P-EBT monthly allotments distributed during the 2020-21 school year were dependent on the learning model of students’ schools. Families with eligible children in a hybrid learning model received $59.68 per child each month. In fully remote districts, families received $119.35 per child. During the summer, families received a one-time allotment of $375 per child.

At the same time, the federal government put waivers in place to allow schools to provide free meals to all students, regardless of income. Maine, one of the first states to make school meals free for everyone, will continue that practice when the federal waivers expire at the end of the school year.

“It really had a big impact and was incredibly helpful to the families that need it and rely on this kind of support to help keep their fridge and cupboards full,” said Anna Korsen, advocacy director for Full Plates Full Potential, a statewide nonprofit that fights childhood food insecurity.

The temporary SNAP increases and EBT allocations during the pandemic illustrate the effectiveness of fighting food insecurity by providing more money for groceries directly to the people who need it most, experts say.

“This means that some Mainers were able to access more nutritious food from their local grocery stores or schools rather than at a community food pantry,” Miale said. The hope is the new changes will let them continue to do so.

A ‘GAME CHANGER’ FOR FAMILIES

Tim Keefe of Rockland knows all too well how much SNAP can help when money for food runs out.

In all of his years working and raising two children on his own, Keefe never needed food stamps. But when he was injured while making snowplows six years ago, he quickly found himself without money, without a home and without food.

Keefe said he spent a brutal winter “living like a caveman” in a tent in the woods, catching squirrels to cook over the campfire and hitchhiking 20 miles to a food bank. He went days at a time without eating and lost so much weight he punched seven new notches in his belt.

He tried to apply for SNAP benefits, but wasn’t eligible because he was under 50 and wasn’t medically cleared to work or volunteer 20 hours a week in order to qualify. The day he turned 50, he was in a Department of Health and Human Services office to apply for SNAP, a safety net he says helped him while he recovered from his injury, found housing and started a new job as a shipbuilder at Bath Iron Works.

“It was a game changer,” Keefe said of the $194 monthly SNAP benefit he received. “SNAP was a lifesaver. I could hitchhike 20 miles to get the food I knew I needed, rather than just what some kind person donated. It gave me back control over my diet.”

But Keefe, now 54, was also frustrated with a system that he felt unnecessarily excluded people who needed that safety net. When Congress was debating the 2018 Farm Bill that ultimately directed the USDA to reevaluate the Thrifty Food Plan, Keefe traveled to Washington to testify in support of removing barriers and increasing SNAP benefits.

He no longer needs SNAP, but said he is glad the benefits finally are going up, especially for families that often have had to choose cheaper and less healthy groceries to stretch their grocery budgets.

Carolyn Silvius of Portland is on SSI disability and receives $234 each month through SNAP to help with food costs. She believes SNAP needs to be increased so people can afford healthy food. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Even as American eating habits and nutrition guidelines changed over the past four decades, even as food costs rose, the Thrifty Meal Plan was adjusted only for inflation. For years, SNAP recipients and anti-hunger advocates argued that the plan underestimated the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet. In the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress directed the USDA to reassess the plan, taking such factors as cost and modern dietary guidelines into account.

“To set SNAP families up for success, we need a Thrifty Food Plan that supports current dietary guidance on a budget,” Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said when the updated plan was announced in August. “Too many of our fellow Americans struggle to afford healthy meals. The revised plan is one step toward getting them the support they need to feed their families.”

The reevaluation concluded that the cost of a nutritious, practical, cost-effective diet was 21 percent higher than benefits as they then stood.

The 2021 Thrifty Meal Plan, according to the USDA, now puts healthy food in reach for families that receive SNAP. A study by the administration published last summer, before current benefit levels were in place, found that nearly 9 out of 10 SNAP participants reported facing barriers to achieving a healthy diet, with the cost of healthy foods cited as the most common barrier.

Carolyn Silvius of Portland receives $234 a month in SNAP benefits, and said she has learned over the years how to get the healthy food she needs by shopping sales at different stores and buying older, discounted produce. While she has been able to stretch her SNAP dollars to last a month, she knows most families have not.

“I understand that food stamps are only a supplement and they expect you to spend your income, but when you’re on SSI or you’re getting (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), you have nothing left over after you get done paying rent and bills to buy food. That creates a problem,” said Silvius, 74, who receives Social Security disability. “I’m hoping the increases … will provide them with enough food to get by.”

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