Nutrition

Nutrition aid surges, food banks brace for uncertain future – The Durango Herald

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on Sept. 8. President Joe Biden’s administration has approved a permanent 25% increase in food aid over pre-pandemic levels. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press file)

Susan Walsh

SANTA FE – Food banks in New Mexico with high rates of childhood poverty and hunger are watching with apprehension as the federal government boosts standard food stamp benefits in October and extends generous emergency allotments temporarily.

President Joe Biden’s administration has approved a permanent 25% increase in food aid over pre-pandemic levels, available to all 42 million Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program beneficiaries across the country. The increase on Oct. 1 coincides with the expiration of a smaller, 15% boost in food-aid benefits that was ordered as a pandemic protection measure.

At the same time, emergency allotments in food aid are continuing in most states, including New Mexico, but will phase out as public health emergency designations eventually come to an end.

The allotment often doubles standard monthly benefit payments and the eventual expiration threatens to send shock waves through personal and family finances in New Mexico, where more than one-in-four residents depends on the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to help put food on the table.

“We enjoy seeing families – low-income families – being able to access their own food. It’s certainly a more dignified and respectful way to get the food that their families need,” said Sherry Hooper, executive director of The Food Depot that acts as a food bank of last resort for 40,000 people across a sparsely populated area the size of West Virginia.

“The Food Depot is here to help if any of those benefits end or if they need additional help,” she said.

She said the pandemic has increased the number of people seeking help with food essentials by about 30% in her territory in northern and eastern New Mexico.

The federal government fully funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, without state matching funds.

New Mexico lawmakers nonetheless funneled $10 million toward emergency food aid during legislative sessions in early 2021 and November 2020, and the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is lobbying for a more robust emergency nutrition package for the coming fiscal year that starts on July 1, 2022.

The pandemic has been accompanied by an unprecedented outpouring of federal assistance designed to limit disruptions in housing, food security and the broader economy. But some direct emergency aid to low-income households is already winding down.

The federal government in early September ended its supplemental unemployment benefit of $300 a week that went out to about 50,000 residents. State finance authorities are sprinting to provide rental assistance to people who have fallen behind on payments to landlords, while a statewide eviction moratorium remains in effect for people who can’t afford to pay rent.

On the food-aid front, about 540,000 people were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as of August, across a state with 2.1 million residents, according to the Human Services Department that administers federal nutritional benefits.

Agency spokeswoman Jodi McGinnis-Port says the average household SNAP benefit of $237 in July 2019 increased to $477 in July 2021 – and will nudge higher in October.

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