A mile-long line for free food offers a warning as covid benefits end

A mile-long line for free food offers a warning as covid benefits end

(Video: Reshma Kirpalani)


HAZEL GREEN, Ky. — As he claimed the first spot in a mile-long line for free food in the Appalachian foothills, Danny Blair vividly recalled receiving the letter announcing that his pandemic-era benefit to help buy groceries was about to be slashed.

Kentucky lawmakers had voted to end the state’s health emergency last spring, by default cutting food stamp benefits created to help vulnerable Americans like Blair weather the worst of covid-19. Instead of $200 a month, he would get just $30.

He crumpled up the letter and threw it on the floor of his camper.

“I thought, ‘Wow, the government is trying to kill us now,’” said Blair, 63, who survives on his Social Security disability check and lives in mobile home with his wife after their house burned down five years ago. “They are going to starve us out.”

To avoid that from happening, Blair and his wife hop into their truck twice a month at 4 a.m. to ensure they get a few staples at the Hazel Green Food Project’s giveaway. On a recent Friday, they waited nine hours until local prisoners on work duty started loading bags of meat and vegetables, potato chips and cookies into vehicles in one of the nation’s most impoverished communities.

From the front to the back of the line, the sea of despair and hardship along this desolate Kentucky highway foreshadowed what may be in store for millions of Americans as the federal government ended the remaining pandemic increase in monthly food stamp benefits this week.

The latest cuts to one of the nation’s vital social safety net programs will limit how much food an estimated 31 million Americans will be able to afford each month, testing whether the Biden administration and state leaders can take away assistance without exacerbating a growing food insecurity crisis.

Over the past year, 18 states, including Kentucky, ended official states of emergency and rescinded the covid food benefit. For the other 32 states as well as the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam, Congress mandated in December that the extra help sunset on March 1.

The pullback of federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits is part of a broader effort by the government to unwind some of the billions of dollars spent to help protect jobs or boost incomes for Americans during the pandemic. Over the past 18 months, the federal government has halted enhanced unemployment benefits and ended pandemic-era child tax credits. It is in the process of rolling back expansions in Medicaid, putting millions of Americans at risk of losing coverage.

Collectively, the return to pre-pandemic policies could pose a setback to President Biden’s efforts to slash poverty while building a healthier and more sustainable middle class.

“We saw positive benefits from this and less hardship, including for families with children,” said Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who noted there was a steep decline in childhood poverty rates in 2021. “We can expect that to reverse now.”

For those waiting in line for food in Kentucky, the last year has been jarring. Some said they can now only afford to eat once a day. Others limit expensive items like meat for specific family members like growing teenage boys. All described feeling hunger.

‘Could not be coming at a worse time’

Authorized by Congress in the early months of the covid crisis, the emergency SNAP allotments allowed 41 million recipients to receive an increase in food stamp benefits, helping families at a time when businesses were shuttering, schools closed and uncertainty abounded.

The extra cash for groceries varied based on considerations such as income level and amount of aid received before the pandemic hit, but all were entitled to the maximum allowance for their particular situation. For many families, that translated to significantly fuller grocery carts. Even recipients receiving the largest monthly benefit available before the pandemic were granted an extra $95 a month.

The average SNAP recipient’s benefits are expected to be cut about $90 per month, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. An even greater reduction is looming for many senior citizens and the working poor who get assistance from other government programs and will qualify for less.

The average senior citizen on food stamps in Kentucky saw their monthly food benefit drop from $281 to $22 last year after the state emergency ended in May, according to Feeding Kentucky, a network of local food banks.

With Kentucky serving as a warning beacon, social services agencies and charities across the country are now preparing for a summer of misery as food prices continue to soar due to inflation.

“We are bracing, and our agencies, member food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens are not prepared for what is about to hit them,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, which includes about 3,600 charities. “This reduction, and end of the public health emergency, could not be coming at a worse time.”

Even before the benefits retired this month in Ohio, Hamler-Fugitt said demand at food banks soared last year as retail food prices rose by 11.4 percent nationwide, more than five times the historical annual average. She said Ohio charities and foodbanks served 3.1 million people in the last quarter of 2022, which she called a record and about 600,000 more than were served during the same period in 2021.

Now, Hamler-Fugitt expects many of the state’s 1.5 million recipients will also be scrambling to find food assistance, adding she projects the benefit reductions will remove $120 million from Ohio’s retail economy each month.

“We estimate we would have to increase our distribution by 15 times to even begin to address this, and we don’t have the resources to do that,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “So hunger rates are going to increase among our seniors, and families, and our children are going to fall behind academically because they are not going to be able to concentrate on empty stomachs.”

In Kentucky, Republican lawmakers in the state House and Senate argued in March 2022 that the immediate impacts of the pandemic had waned and that it was time for a return to normal. Gov. Andy Beshear (D) vetoed the measured to end Kentucky’s covid emergency, saying it would effectively “take food off the table” for more than a half-million people. But Republicans, who hold a majority in both chambers, voted to override his opposition.

The sponsor of the resolution, state Sen. Donald Douglas, did not return a request for comment, but contended during debates that it was not practical to live “under a constant state of emergency.”

“Let’s ask yourself, should SNAP benefits be a way of life?” he asked. “Now we know it is for some. Should it be a way of life for adults?”

(Video: Reshma Kirpalani)

In Kentucky, a state that has been hit particularly hard by the collapse of the coal industry, entrenched poverty and hunger have been generational problems that state and federal officials have struggled for decades to address.

But during the pandemic, state officials and charities say the influx in federal assistance for the poor — including expanded unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, child tax credits and an increase to maximum SNAP benefit allotments — helped lift scores of families out of hardship.

Federal data shows about two-thirds of SNAP recipients are families with children. More than 41 percent are working households. The gross monthly income to qualify in 2022 was at or below $2,379 for a three-person family.

In Fayette County, Kentucky’s second-most populous, the number of individuals and families seeking assistance from food pantries declined during the height of the pandemic even as unemployment soared, said Michael J. Halligan, chief executive of God’s Pantry Foodbank, which operates in 50 counties in central and eastern Kentucky.

But since Kentucky halted its emergency SNAP benefits in May, Halligan said food pantries in the state have seen about a 20 percent increase in need. God’s Pantry Foodbank now distributes or serves the equivalent of 100,000 meals per day, Halligan said.

“The message I have shared with colleagues all across the country is here’s what we experienced when the emergency health declarations were rescinded,” Halligan said. “You should expect the same thing. You will see it within 30 to 60 days after those benefits sunset.”

In Hazel Green, Nicky Stacy initially launched the Hazel Green Food Project in February 2021 in response to a series of devastating flash floods in eastern Kentucky.

A town of just a few hundred residents, Hazel Green was a hub of commerce and tourism in the early 20th century as people flocked to bottle mineral water from natural springs believed to have therapeutic benefits. Today, Hazel Green and the surrounding parts of Wolfe County — where 30 percent of residents live in poverty — mostly consists of agricultural land and weatherworn farmhouses.

After Kentucky’s emergency food benefits expired, Stacey said interest in the Hazel Green Food Project’s bimonthly giveaways soared as residents from Wolfe County and surrounding communities realized they had less money to buy food.

“They never even gave these people any warning,” Stacy said. “It was just like, ‘Damn, it’s gone.’”

At the food giveaway on Feb. 24, the mile-long line of vehicles snaked down Kentucky Route 205, a stretch of highway that also includes a Dollar Store, Uncle Sam’s Gun & Pawn Shop and Bites and Bargains homestyle restaurant.

Inside many of the vehicles, motorists blamed the reduction in SNAP benefits for their desperation.

Further down the line from the Blairs, Elizabeth Conley sat coughing in a rusted truck where the gas pedal was wrapped in duct tape and wires dangled from the dashboard. She said her monthly SNAP benefit was cut from $398 to $84 last year. Conley, 45, also receives $914 in Social Security disability benefits because she suffers from lupus and fibromyalgia.

The mother of three — a 21-year-old son in college and two teenagers at home — recounted how quickly she spent her February SNAP benefits.

“I went to the store and I come [home] with like five items — milk, cereal, eggs and some meat that the kids will eat,” Conley said.

“I have teenage boys,” Conley added, her voice rising with exasperation. “People don’t understand boys eat quite a bit, especially teenage boys, and I am not going to let the kids starve.”

Three days after Conley went to the grocery store, the food was gone.

“That is when we knew we needed to come here,” said Conley, who was joined by her boyfriend, who has two teenage boys and saw his monthly SNAP benefits reduced from $396 to $228 last year. “We just need food, and we don’t have any.”

A few cars away, Courtney and Beatty Stone parked in the line around 10 a.m. and settled in for a three-hour wait.

Courtney, 68, and Beatty, 64, were both hooked up to mobile oxygen tanks and said their monthly food stamp benefit dropped last year from $350 to $140.

As they puffed on cigarettes and their oxygen machines chirped with each breath, the former tobacco farmers recalled how the increased benefits during the pandemic allowed them to occasionally buy some comfort food.

“When we had $350, we could buy some ice cream sometimes. And some pop and chips,” said Courtney Stone, referring to a slang for soda.

Now, the couple said they struggle to afford even their monthly supply of what they consider to be staple foods.

“By the time you buy your mayonnaise, ketchup, salt and pepper and eggs, oh the [price of] eggs, they went crazy … We might have only $5 left on our SNAP card,” Beatty Stone said.

As the couple passed the time by listening to a Christian radio station, Courtney Stone said he feels betrayed by the government. The couple — each of whom also collect $680 a month in Social Security benefits — said they are most upset about not being able to go to church as often because they cannot afford the price of gas.

“How can you give something and then take it away?” he asked. “They didn’t lower taxes. They didn’t lower the price of everything else.”

But as he took another hit of his cigarette, Courtney said he was slowly coming to accept his predicament.

“The thing is, you were born to die,” he said.

Patchwork of state responses

As stories of human suffering emerge, political leaders in some states are considering ways to soften the impact of the SNAP benefit reductions.

Last month, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) signed legislation guaranteeing a minimum $95 per month SNAP benefit in the Garden State, the first state to do so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The $32 million initiative was championed by New Jersey House Speaker Craig J. Coughlin (D), who said in an interview he believes hunger is one of the biggest challenges facing the United States.

“I believe, that it is closer to a moral obligation than a government function to make sure the people are fed,” said Coughlin. “In every town, in every state, even in affluent communities, there is somebody who is hungry.”

But Murphy, who is also chairman of the National Governors Association, said he worries that New Jersey’s action may exacerbate the growing divide between states when it comes to providing social services and other policies.

“Even though I am proud that New Jersey is on the right side of history, America has become a patchwork quilt set of states,” said Murphy, citing different state policies dealing with health care, gun regulations, abortion and LGBTQ rights. “It really matters where you live and work.”

Instead of a state-by-state approach, social service advocates hope that Congress reconsiders food stamp funding when it takes up the five-year reauthorization of the farm bill this year. While SNAP recipients are getting a cost-of-living adjustment this year, that increase is considered a lagging indicator that does not account for inflationary pressures.

Ryan Quarles, a Republican who serves as Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner, also hopes Congress weighs in on ways to alleviate hardship, although he added he’s not ready to endorse a return to pandemic-era benefit amounts.

“Food insecurity in Kentucky has reached catastrophic levels,” said Quarles, a candidate for the GOP nomination for governor. “There is no excuse for a state that produces so much food to have any Kentuckian go to bed hungry.”

Henry Tolsen and his chiweenie waited three hours for free food at the Hazel Green Food Project in Eastern Kentucky on Feb 24. (Video: Reshma Kirpalani)

‘Are we going to starve?’

But outside the Hazel Green Volunteer Fire Station last week, the line for free food kept growing. The number of people in line easily eclipsed the total population of Hazel Green before the pantry opened, reflecting how the donation program has become a source of food for people throughout western Kentucky.

As 74-year-old Martha Miller and her daughter, Mary, waited in line, they said they’ve started using centuries old Appalachian Mountain cooking tips to save on food costs.

If a recipe calls for eggs, use shortening instead. A can of cream and two cups of water can make the equivalent of 1 percent milk. And save bacon grease to use later as shortening.

“I don’t buy fresh vegetables anymore. I can’t afford them,” Martha Miller said. “I don’t buy eggs anymore. I can’t afford them.”

But for some people in line, even food conservation is not enough to keep them fed all month.

About an hour after the 1 p.m. food giveaway began, Henry Tolsen pulled his 30-year-old pickup truck to the back of the line. He settled in for an anxious three-hour wait, worrying whether any food would be left for him.

Tolsen, a tobacco and corn farmer who went bankrupt after a flood took out his crops in 1997, saw his monthly food stamp benefit reduced last year from $240 to $30 a month.

He also receives $1,000 a month in Social Security benefits to help pay his bills and keep gas in his truck. But Tolsen, 58, who is divorced and lives alone with his pet chiweenie, said he’s starting to eat just one meal a day.

“Yesterday, I only ate a bowl of cereal and a can of peaches,” said Tolsen, as he turned off his truck to save gas until the line started moving again. “I would like to be able to eat bacon and eggs, biscuits and gravy for breakfast, a decent lunch, and a homegrown supper like I used to.”

Although the Hazel Green Food Project hands out food until they run out, there is usually little to offer those at the back of the line, which was not lost on Tolsen.

“If they run out, I go home empty-handed,” Tolsen said. “Let’s just pray and thank the good Lord I will get my disability check.”

At about 5 p.m., Tolsen reached the front of the line. Volunteers handed him three venison steaks, two heads of cabbage and three bags each of potatoes, carrots and fried pork rinds.

Although Tolsen had food again, he drove away questioning whether his government really cared about him.

“I know everyone was happy to get that stimulus, but they didn’t realize there is going to be a payday, and we are paying for it now,” he said. “How did the government give us anything when they let inflation get so high we can’t live and we are going to starve out?”

(Video: Reshma Kirpalani)

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