For the past year and a half, 76-year-old Rose Neely has relied on an extra $150 in federal food benefits. Now that those pandemic-era benefits have ended, the retired teacher worries how she’ll fill her pantry.
Neely, a Northeast San Antonio resident who lives on Social Security, is one of an estimated 290,000 Bexar County residents who will see their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits drop in March, the result of the Biden administration’s decision to end the national COVID-19 emergency declarations.
Every eligible household will see a drop of $95, the minimum amount of the emergency allotment. Other households received more; according to the nonprofit advocacy group Every Texan, benefits for the average Bexar County household will drop by $211 a month.
All told, Bexar County households using SNAP will lose $27.5 million in pandemic-related food benefits, estimated Feeding Texans, a hunger relief organization based in Austin.
Under the pandemic-era program, Neely, who lives alone, said the extra $150 a month brought her total SNAP benefits up to about $300. A recent increase in her Social Security income decreased her SNAP benefits by $40. Now that her emergency allotment of $150 has ended, she said she’ll be left with about $110 to spend on food each month.
Neely was already worried about a slew of expenses piling up on her. She recently had to make unexpected repairs to her mother’s home, she drives an 18-year-old Honda Accord and just had to pay her property taxes. All these expenses have come as inflation has reduced her buying power.
“If you don’t have a lot of income, anything that’s taken away from you is a big deal,” she said. “Even when you’ve got the money, everything is still high, so you’re behind the eight ball.”
Seniors hit hardest
Rachel Cooper, director of health and food justice for Every Texan, said seniors will be hit the hardest. Like Neely, many rely on Social Security, which is often not enough to live on but is too much to qualify for much in food benefits.
“We think people are going to be hungry again,” Cooper said, adding that record food inflation is already hurting people who live paycheck to paycheck. “We expect people will be turning to food banks and other sources, but there’s no question, it’s going to be hard for people.”
The San Antonio Food Bank has been sounding the alarm to those who volunteer at its community pantries across the city for at least a month now, volunteers at Windcrest United Methodist Church said.
At the church pantry, volunteers have been warned that the decrease in SNAP benefits will drive more people to seek food assistance. Church volunteers say they’ve already seen more people as inflation has pushed prices higher.
At the San Antonio Food Bank, Melanie McGuire, chief program officer for the nonprofit, said they’ve seen a 15% increase in people seeking services since last fall.
People’s income “is simply not stretching enough to acquire what they’ve normally been able to get in the past,” McGuire said. She said the food bank is ready for the increased demand they’re expecting as a result of the SNAP cuts.
The food bank also is training its staff to handle the emotional effects families may experience while seeking support. McGuire said some show signs of panic or stress for not being able to meet their family’s basic needs.
McGuire said the food bank is helping families dealing not just with food insecurity, but also its root causes, including housing instability, a lack of education or good-paying jobs and transportation challenges.
“It’s really telling of what the face of hunger is right now,” she said.
Next up: Medicaid
SNAP is the first federal benefit cut as the result of the end of the public health emergency. Starting March 31, continuous Medicaid enrollment will stop.
The public health emergency included a “continuous coverage” provision that kept people on Medicaid rolls without having to re-apply. When that provision ends, some of those now covered will not be eligible to re-enroll, leaving more low-income San Antonio families uninsured.
Those unlikely to remain eligible will receive letters in early April saying they’ll be disenrolled, said Joe Ibarra, director of enrollment at Enroll SA, a community coalition that works to increase the health insurance enrollment rate in San Antonio.
The nonprofit has more than 40 people across the city helping families at risk of losing Medicaid coverage find health insurance alternatives.
Those notified that they are eligible to re-apply should do so right away, said advocates, to avoid getting caught in the backlog of cases the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is expected to experience.
“The speed at which they’re saying they’re going to do this process is unrealistic and it goes against what federal officials and others are recommending,” said Every Texan’s Cooper of the state agency’s plans. “They’re being asked to do an unprecedented amount of applications in a timeline that’s never been done before.”
Whether it’s SNAP or Medicaid loss, the United Way of San Antonio is pointing those who are losing benefits to community programs that can help fill in the gaps.
“It’s scary to try to figure out, ‘I need help. I don’t know where to go,'” said Kevin Femmel, public information officer for United Way of San Antonio. “People may not even try to figure out where to go because that’s an intimidating process.”
Those in need of assistance may also call 211, the state’s free, anonymous social service hotline.