Indiana food banks welcome federal SNAP benefit boost, but say it's not enough
The maximum amount of money people can get from the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, increased 12.5 percent starting this month.
The adjustment would mean that a family of four getting maximum benefits from SNAP now get $939 a month instead of $835.
“Every dollar counts when it comes to putting food on the table for your family,” said Hannah Carty, area operations director with the social determinants of health team at Eskenazi Health. “We're very glad to see that increase, but especially if inflation continues, you're kind of always playing catch up a little bit trying to make the benefits match what the actual costs are.”
Not all of the over 600,000 Hoosiers on SNAP qualify for maximum benefits. Households of one or two people can get as little as $23 a week, the new minimum benefit after this month's adjustment.
“It's not something that's going to be, I think, a huge change to people's bottom line and their budget,” Carty said.
The income threshold for people to qualify for SNAP also increased, so now a family of four with a net monthly income of $2,313 can apply for assistance. Previously, it was capped at $2,209.
The average Indiana household on SNAP received approximately $350 in August, July and June of this year, according to data from Indiana’s Family And Social Services Administration (FSSA).
“[Applying for SNAP is] a time and effort, it's gathering documents, making yourself available for an interview, it is absolutely something that people really do have to invest in,” she said. “People's budgets are stretched thin. And whereas in the past, some would say ‘This might be a really small benefit, I don't know if it's worth it to me,’ I think we're seeing a lot of families that are saying it's worth a try.”
The averages in the months before that were around $200 higher. The shift is likely because Indiana had a federal waiver guaranteeing all SNAP recipients get the maximum benefits possible while state pandemic emergency declarations were in place.
The FSSA ended its emergency declaration in mid-April, so the emergency allotments stopped in May. An individual on SNAP could have their benefits drop from around $200 a week to $20.
“The emergency allotment was a real make or break for so many of our neighbors,” said Lindsay Riddick, SNAP Outreach Manager for Gleaners Food Bank, which serves 21 central and southeastern Indiana counties. “Especially since inflation was just really picking up at that time, it was a really hard hit for a lot of our neighbors to lose that.”
She has already seen “impact and improvements” for the people she helps apply for and navigate SNAP from this year’s adjustment. But the increase has not made up for losing the extra pandemic allotments, Riddick said
“With the pandemic, [the food bank’s] number [of people seeking help] kind of shot through the roof, and then there was a little decrease about 2021-ish, and then they've just picked right back up with inflation,” she said. “So this increase definitely helps. But it does not get us to where we need to be.”
The lowered SNAP benefits and inflation combined to dramatically increase the amount of people who need help from Food Finders, according to the North Central Indiana food bank’s president and CEO Katy Bunder.
“It's this perfect storm,” she said, pointing to the end of the emergency SNAP allocations and extended unemployment benefits as well as a reduction in the amount of food her organization gets through the federal government’s Emergency Food Assistance Program. “Inflation is hitting everyone. So our donations are down, the number of clients coming to us is up, and the government bit is down.”
The number of households coming to Food Finders for help has been going up by about 100 every week since March, Bunder said. “So really, in my 14 years, this is probably the worst time that we've been through.”
“[Indiana is] shifting the burden from the state to the nonprofits,” Bunder said. “And we are not funded by the government. “It's private donations. And it's really not going to be able to keep up if something doesn't happen differently soon.”
Food Finders received a grant from the state to perform SNAP Outreach, as did Gleaners and Eskenazi.
The cost of living adjustment in October 2021 was the “first” change in SNAP’s “purchasing power” since 1975, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s based on the annual July “Thrifty Food Plan” report, which assesses the cost “of groceries needed to provide a healthy, budget-conscious diet for a family of four.”
The cost of food increased around 1 percent on the Consumer Price Index in July and August, after the report’s cost assessment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Most of the people that use the food pantry are either retired or employed, but they just don't earn enough to not to not need our help,” Bunder said.
The total amount the SNAP gave people in Indiana was projected to increase by $289 million as a result of the 2021 adjustment. That estimate was not counting emergency allotments.
A projected total increase for the year after 2022’s adjustment won't be available until November.
All three food bank representatives recommended that people who aren’t sure if they qualify reach out to outreach organizations or the state for help. It’s become somewhat easier to apply, they said, now that the state has an online portal for uploading documents rather than requiring them to be mailed or faxed.
“We feel like we're really making a lot of good progress and explaining SNAP, and getting people that previously thought they didn't qualify to at least apply,” Bunder said. “And also, we're helping a lot of elderly people, because a lot of them think they don't qualify since they have social security, which is wrong.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said the adjusted maximum SNAP benefit for a family of four was $939 a week. That was incorrect. That's the benefit per month. The story also said the net monthly income was previously capped at $2,871. It should be $2,209.