For the last three years, Rebekah Braudrick received $939 per month in Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits – colloquially known as food stamps. The assistance covered most of the food budget she needs to feed her family. But in March, the monthly benefits upon which Braudrick relies dropped to $734.
Standing in Manna’s food pantry, where the Durango nonprofit keeps stocked shelves for those in need of additional resources, Braudrick said she began to rely on the organization more in March than ever before.
“I know $734 sounds like a lot, but I just got my food stamps (three days ago) and I’m already down to $300, just to go and get milk and eggs and the stuff I couldn’t get here,” she said.
Ellen Benson, a retired day care provider from Dolores, received $284 in monthly SNAP benefits for the last three years.
“I never spent one cent more than that for my entire food for a month,” she said.
But in March, just $32 showed up in her electronic benefit transfer account.
These drastic cuts in SNAP benefits are the result of the federal government whittling away at the temporary support beams intended to reinforce social welfare programs throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The standard eligibility renewal and disenrollment process for Medicaid will resume next month for the first time in three years, and COVID-19 vaccines and tests may soon become costly.
The SNAP allotment for which someone is eligible is dependent on their income. But for the past three years, every recipient has received the maximum allotment based on their household size – $284 for a household of one, such as Benson’s, and $939 for a household of four, such as Braudrick’s.
In the case of individuals who were already receiving the maximum amount, benefits increased by $95.
Those emergency allotments came to an end last month as the result of an appropriations bill signed by President Joe Biden in December. The average reduction in benefits was $90.
Over 8% of La Plata County’s 56,250 residents receive SNAP benefits, totaling about 4,511 people. In Archuleta County, 1,535 residents receive food assistance benefits, or 11%; and in Montezuma County, 4,598 residents take part in the program, or nearly 18%.
Food assistance providers in La Plata County convene monthly, and have braced themselves for the impact of this sudden change. In the month that has elapsed since the added benefits ended, providers have been stretched thin.
And SNAP recipients are reporting that, at best, food is now demanding an outsized portion of their budget. At worst, recipients say they are suddenly running out of money each month.
The end of the surplus funds has negatively impacted the financial stability of the people who relied on them as recipients return to spending smaller allotments in an increasingly expensive grocery store.
“It’s made me feel less secure,” Benson said.
But the additional SNAP benefits provided more than just reduced financial anxiety, recipients said. The allotments enabled them to have choice.
For Benson, this meant she could choose where she shopped.
“I even broke down a couple of weeks ago and I went to Walmart – I absolutely hate Walmart,” she said.
For people with dietary restrictions, the impact has been even more noticeable.
Greg Levesque was also receiving the maximum allotment of $284 during the pandemic. His benefits were also slashed to less than $30.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said, standing in the Manna pantry. “I’m on a low-sodium diet due to my health, I’ve got to be careful what I eat.”
He said the last month has been an exercise in “learning to cut corners.”
For those left in truly dire financial straits by the change, food banks are a lifeline.
Braudrick said she has taken advantage of Manna’s resources in the past – but now it is a necessity.
“I ended up with $2 left, but coming up here made it so we can survive and have food,” she said.
In February, La Plata County Department of Human Services Director Martha Johnson warned that the end of emergency allotments would “drive thousands of people into crisis.”
During the last month, Johnson said her department has not been hit by a barrage of requests, likely thanks to widespread messaging on the topic.
But food assistance providers that work to support those who have needs beyond what SNAP can fulfill are feeling the impact. From the Fort Lewis College Grub Hub to the La Plata County Senior Center, providers have reported increases in the volume of food they distribute.
Marissa Hunt, Manna’s resource center manager, said between the growing volume of users and weather-related delays at the end of March, the pantry’s shelves were depleted. She has noticed an increase in new visitors who preface questions about the pantry by noting that their SNAP benefits are no longer sufficient.
“By the time they make it here to our food market, (there’s) a sense of relief,” Hunt said.
The Good Food Collective has compiled a list of food providers in the county that can be found on the organization’s website. The organization is also in the process of hiring a community food navigator to ensure those in need are connected with all available resources.
The situation with rising food prices and declining benefits, according to Christina Knickerbocker, food equity supervisor with La Plata Family Centers Coalition, is nothing short of “radical.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of food was 10.2% higher in February 2023 than in February 2022. Eggs – a reliably affordable source of protein – have skyrocketed in cost by 55%.
The Durango Emergency Food Pantry, housed at La Plata Family Centers, is open five days per week. Knickerbocker said the need for food surged toward the end of the month because SNAP benefits are refilled in the first week of the month and beneficiaries had begun to run out.
“Two days last week (the last week of March), we handed out as much food as we normally hand out in two weeks,” she said.
Demand has grown to the point that the pantry has had to request users limit visits to one per week. Knickerbocker said the number of families relying on the pantry each week has jumped from 160 to 220 since the emergency allotments ended.
“Those two days shocked me,” she said.
In the face this shock, providers are urging SNAP recipients to make sure their allocations are correct – an increase in rent or reduction in income can affect allocations. The Colorado Department of Human services has also urged program participants to buy nonperishable food and save it. Any unused benefits will remain on the recipient’s account for nine months.
“We wish we could keep emergency allotments going forever,” DHS spokesman John Rosa said. “It’s out of our hands.”