SNAP changes will affect feeding programs, advocates say

By Lori Kersey, Weekend Editor

F. BRIAN FERGUSON | Gazette-Mail Lora Wilkerson (left), manager of Covenant House’s food pantry, and volunteer Spenser Hively gather food products at the pantry Thursday morning. Changes to requirements for food stamps will mean a greater burden for area food banks, advocates say.

The state’s plan to make some food stamp recipients in nine counties work or train or face losing those benefits will ultimately increase the burden on West Virginia’s food banks, pantries and soup kitchens, advocates say.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources announced late last year it would reinstate a federal requirement that SNAP recipients meet a monthly work or training requirement of 20 hours per week or lose benefits. The changes took effect in January.

The changes affect recipients in the counties with the lowest unemployment: Berkeley, Cabell, Harrison, Jefferson, Kanawha, Marion, Monongalia, Morgan and Putnam. It affects those who fall into the category of “able-bodied adults without dependents” — those who are between the ages of 18 to 49, are not disabled, don’t have dependents and don’t qualify for an exemption.

SNAP recipients who don’t comply with the guidelines after three months are kicked out of the program.

Chad Morrison, executive director of the Mountaineer Food Bank, said any changes that make food stamps more difficult to access will mean more work for his agency and others.

“Any changes to make it more of a challenge [to get SNAP benefits], it’s less likely that people are going to want to apply for SNAP,” Morrison said. “They’re a big part of hunger relief. [Food banks] can’t do it by ourselves; we see SNAP as a big part of that.”

Mountaineer Food Bank, based in Gassaway, distributes to 440 feeding programs in 48 West Virginia counties. It is one of two food banks in the state.

Morrison said the change is coming at a time when the need for food assistance has grown.

“Our distribution has grown exponentially over the last several years,” Morrison said. “A lot of working-class families visit food pantries. It’s not just a place for people in poverty.”

Mountaineer distributed 4 million pounds of food in 2008. This year, it’s on track to distribute 12 million, and even that won’t meet the need, Morrison said.

To ensure that everyone living in poverty or food insecurity has access to food, the food bank would need to give out 15 or 16 million pounds of food each year, he said.

Cynthia D. Kirkhart, executive director of the Huntington-based Facing Hunger Food Bank, said when the need for food increases, the supply often does not increase along with it. The commodities the food bank receives from the state Department of Agriculture don’t increase with the demand, either, she said.

FHFB supplies food pantries in seven of the nine affected counties, Kirkhart said.

“We also have almost all of the southern tier of the state,” she said. “With the increased layoffs, we’re also seeing a higher demand based on the economy of the state.”

Kirkhart said during a time when a lot of political talk revolves around food stamp recipients and whether there’s abuse in the system or if the program serves drug abusers, everyone should agree that children shouldn’t go hungry.

“The closest thing we see to a drug user is their child,” she said.

FHFB serves 3,370 kids each week with a backpack program that sends children home with food for them to eat while away from school.

The food bank distributed 5.4 million pounds of food last year to 223 member agencies, she said. Kirkhart said there’s always a need for food and especially protein.

Ellen Allen, director of Covenant House in Charleston, said her agency’s food pantry is preparing to have to feed more people. In 2015, the agency’s food pantry fed 9,800 people.

“We have such great support from the faith community that we’re trying to increase donations and also budget for a little more food buying,” Allen said. “I think we can meet that need. The community always really responds. It’s pretty incredible.”

While the recipients are required to either work, train or volunteer to keep their benefits, advocates say many don’t have access to transportation, which will hinder them in finding work. Many recipients are homeless or lack a high school diploma. Others are returning from military service or have felony convictions that would affect their employment, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

Just how many will lose benefits is not clear. According to one estimate from the Department of Health and Human Resources, there are 47,000 able-bodied SNAP recipients across the nine-county area. The DHHR says 34,000 of them have been screened out as exempt from the requirements.

The DHHR says there are fewer than 7,000 people who have yet to talk to the department about their work intentions and are therefore most at risk to lose benefits.

Nationally, between 500,000 and 1 million people are expected to lose SNAP benefits this year, according to estimates from the national Center on Budget and Priorities.

While SNAP has limited recipients to three months of assistance for every three years since 1996, many states qualified to waive the time limit during the most recent economic downturn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program. As the economy recovers, many states are choosing not to have the waivers any more or are ineligible for them.

Rick Wilson, program director for the American Friends Service Committee, agrees that West Virginia’s workforce participation rate is too low and the state is better off with more people working and in training. But he’s concerned that people will be cut off from benefits they need.

“What we do know is that in several other states where they’ve implemented this … a significant number of people have been cut off. I think in Maine it was as high as 80 percent.”

Many people are under the wrong impression that SNAP benefits are generous, Wilson said. Wilson estimates that they equal about $2 per meal. He says the change could have an unintended effect on local food pantries and even farmers markets that accept SNAP.

“The way I look at it, obviously some of these people who are very low income will take a hit if they can’t get placed,” Wilson said. “I mean if someone is not willing to make a good faith effort, that is on them, but we need to make sure that you can actually place them somewhere … otherwise you’re just setting people up for failure and cutting them off. [You’re] taking money out of the economy and putting strains on local charities.”

The changes took effect in January. The DHHR recently extended for one month the deadline by which time recipients are required to tell officials of their intentions to work or be trained. SNAP recipients may call their local DHHR office or 1-877-716-1212 before April 30 to report their work or training.

Reach Lori Kersey at Lori.Kersey@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1240, or follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.