Jan. 21, 2019 (NORRISTOWN, Pa.) – As the federal government’s partial shutdown drags on, people who depend on food stamps may have to find another source of nutrition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), ran out of funding in January. They were able to use a legal loophole to disburse February benefits ahead of schedule, but it’s unclear how—or if—they can fund March’s benefits.
“It’s already a situation where people are struggling to meet their basic needs, and this is a situation that’s exacerbating that problem,” said Patrick Walsh, pantry manager at Martha’s Choice Marketplace food pantry based out of Catholic Social Services in Norristown.
1.8 million Pennsylvanians received their February SNAP benefits on Jan.18, weeks earlier than scheduled, but the extra money loaded onto recipients’ electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards came with a warning to make it last.
Department of Human Services (DHS) Secretary Teresa Miller said in a statement, “…they will have to make this payment last for an undefined period as the shutdown continues.”
Food distribution organizations like Martha’s Choice Marketplace are preparing for an increase in pantry users. They already distribute 850,000 pounds of food each year and serve about 900 families a month.
“I think the whole thing is really good, helping people and everything. And the volunteers are really nice,” said Conshohocken resident and pantry user Warren Layre.
Pantry manager Patrick Walsh said he had recently seen a marked increase in the number of new applicants he’s seen. He couldn’t definitively say why, but suspected some new applicants could be government employees affected by the shutdown, or SNAP recipients preparing for a long period without their benefits.
“Yesterday there was a bit of a spike of brand new people that registered, but new people register every day,” Walsh said.
Layre said coming in to get food can be uncomfortable for some people, especially those who haven’t used a food pantry before: “I think there’s a fair number of people that are embarrassed to come. They wouldn’t want to tell people they come here. I think it would be embarrassing to them.”
But, he said, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
“No, I don’t think it’s embarrassing. I think the only thing that would be embarrassing would be if I got this food and threw it away or wasted it.”
It’s unclear how many more people will need food assistance should the shutdown continue, Government officials are trying to reduce the confusion by urging Congress to end the shutdown.
DHS Secretary Miller said in a statement, “The federal government must come to a solution so people who already face food insecurity do not continue to be caught in the middle of a situation that they did not create.”
But for people on the ground, not knowing where their food will come from is causing a lot of stress.
“Currently with the uncertainty going on in a lot of government programs, they’re putting people who are already in a tight spot—a lot of hardworking families, people with disabilities, senior citizens—in an even more uncertain and vulnerable position,” Walsh said.
Complicating matters for Martha’s Choice Marketplace, the USDA also delivered an extra 1,600 pounds of pork last week, as part of the federal tariff mitigation program to help farmers hurt by foreign tariffs on their products. Martha’s Choice had to find refrigeration space for the pork with little notice, which Walsh said compounded the sense of confusion and stress.
“We certainly want to make best use of these surprise resources that came to us with 40 hours’ notice, but consistency and proactiveness would be helpful,” Walsh said.
One constant he did say remains, however, is the need in the community, and their determination to help.
“One of the most impactful things that goes on here are the relationships that are built between members of this community of Montgomery County,” Walsh said.