Food benefits and assistance programs are being impacted nationally by the partial government shutdown, and New Jersey residents are about to feel the effects.
Participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will get their February benefits early Thursday, forcing families to budget and make the money last through next month. No federal funds are guaranteed for March, causing worry among hunger advocates and food business owners.
“This is a chain of events,” said Walter Chicas, manager of Boom Market in Ventnor. “We are concerned. We are a food store, and so this hurts us, too.”
SNAP is a federally funded program administered by states that helps lower-income and poverty-stricken residents afford food. More than 730,000 people in New Jersey receive benefits, according to state reports.
Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free NJ, said it is vital to make people understand they need to make the SNAP money stretch and prepare for the possibility they may not see any more money during the shutdown.
“I think (people) are frightened,” she said. “When you’re looking at a basic necessity of life like food and your budget is — depending on how much SNAP comprises of your budget — eviscerated or lessened dramatically or even a little bit, it’s really scary.”
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said the immediate concern is that if residents see their spending money double, they may spend it all too soon. If they do that, they will be in need of emergency food assistance next month.
More than 38,000 adults and children in Atlantic County relied on food benefits this month, according to the state Department of Human Services.
“The system is being compromised,” Levinson said. “This is far-reaching. Most people live paycheck to paycheck. They (residents) are a pawn in this game. It’s disgraceful what’s going on in Washington, and in the meantime, you have people in distress.”
This can be a tough time of year already to find work and pay for expenses after the holidays, Chicas said. Just the other day, someone went to buy groceries at the store and didn’t have money on their food card, leaving empty-handed.
In all the years LaTourette has worked in the food assistance and emergency services fields, never before does she remember a time when uncertainty over long-term SNAP funding has been as dramatic. If funding stops completely in March, it will become an unprecedented situation, she said.
“That scenario is incredibly scary for everyone, not only for families receiving benefits but for the charity community, too,” she said.
The Community FoodBank of New Jersey is one of the largest anti-hunger organizations in the state, headquartered in Hillside, Union County, with a southern branch in Egg Harbor Township. Associated pantries help provide emergency food assistance to people while they figure out long-term plans.
Food bank CEO Carlos Rodriguez said they are preparing as much as they can for the worst, which would be the complete loss of benefits in March, but the pantries are already serving more clients in the form of furloughed workers not getting paid because of the shutdown.
“We’re expecting a tremendous increase in demand a lot sooner than we normally see,” he said. “There are families who may run out of SNAP money in February on top of the families who are furloughed.”
With the possibility there will be no SNAP funding in March, Rodriguez said the food bank is preparing to help people the best it can, but they were never designed to make up the equivalent of $80 million in SNAP funding distributed to residents monthly.
“Everyone will feel it,” he said. “People are already struggling with making ends meet, and having to budget money for basic needs like this will take away from other components. People are already making tough choices.”