As the effects of the pandemic continue to weaken the economy, more New Yorkers are battling food insecurity and depending on food stamps.
Originally called the Food Stamp Program, the government assistance benefit was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2008, commonly referred to as SNAP, to better reflect the program’s focus on nutrition and enhanced accessibility.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP benefits average to about $1.40 per person per meal. As the pandemic has put many out of work, without a stable source of income, more recipients find the amount of the benefit and the food offerings increasingly inadequate.
Kiana Davis, a policy analyst and public benefits advocate at Urban Justice Center, a New York-based organization advocating for social justice, said the amount of SNAP benefits that individuals receive is determined at the federal level and consistent across all states. Given the high cost of living in New York City, even with SNAP assistance, more people are struggling to feed their families since the pandemic started, said Davis.
“New Yorkers are being forced to pay extraordinary prices for their food and being given very little food stamps,” said Davis. “Many households face really stark and scary decisions between purchasing food with the little income they have and paying for other necessities.”
According to the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, in July, 973,546 households in New York City received SNAP benefits, a 11.6% increase from 872,137 households back in February. The number of individuals covered by the program also increased by 183,207 during the same time period.
Besides insufficient SNAP dollars, Davis said the restrictive food options covered by SNAP also created “undue burdens” for people, especially those in vulnerable communities.
According to the New York City Human Resources Administration, the agency that oversees the program in New York City, SNAP benefits can only be used to purchase specific items such as fresh produce, meat, dairy products, seeds, baby formula, spices, water and snacks. Prepared hot foods available at stores and restaurants have been excluded from the program.
For SNAP recipients who live in shelters or survive on the streets, and do not have access to working kitchens, “what they are being forced to do then is to pay for food that they have no way of preparing,” said Davis.
Dawn Secor, a SNAP policy specialist at Hunger Solutions New York, a statewide non-profit, said New York used to implement the Restaurant Meals Program, which allowed elderly, homeless and disabled SNAP recipients to use their benefits towards prepared hot foods at participating delis and restaurants.
But given the limited SNAP dollars people received and the difficulty securing enough vendors to participate, the program eventually came to a halt, said Secor.
According to the New York State Senate, a bill to implement a statewide Restaurant Meals Program was introduced in January and is currently under review in the Social Services Committee. But until the bill is voted on and passed, prepared hot meals will remain excluded from SNAP.
Joel Berg, chief executive of Hunger Free America, a national nonprofit that started in New York City to end domestic hunger, said with such food restrictions in place, people have to travel to a grocery store where they can then spend their SNAP dollars. With the pandemic, this could mean greater risks for vulnerable people who must commute for food, he said.
Pamela Koch, the executive director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said while acknowledging that the restrictive food offerings can make food access more challenging for recipients, it’s also important to understand the origins of the program, which trace back to the late 1930s.
Koch said when the food stamp program was first introduced, food supply looked drastically different from that of today. Stores sold basic grocery items, such as rice, beans, flour, milk and butter. Prepared hot foods were simply not available.
But as food supply and variety have evolved over time, the original program does not fully accommodate such changes, said Koch.
“It’s like you build a little, tiny shack at first, and you keep adding on to it, but you could never get rid of that initial shack,” said Koch. “But eventually you need a palace.”
Koch said budget cuts to SNAP at the federal level are another reason why it’s difficult to offer a better selection of foods. “It’s really hard to have a rational decision about what would be the best way to help people when the program is constantly being questioned in the government,” she said.
Davis agreed, adding that the government’s position to eliminate more food items from eligibility is harmful to recipients who should be able to select foods on their own.
“Americans know what’s best for themselves and for their families,” said Davis. “They should have the ability to make those decisions with the money they are receiving from food stamps or any other government assistance program.
“If we are giving people this benefit, it’s for them to choose what they want to buy,” said Koch.