ATLANTA — Georgians who rely on food stamps are set to see a steep decrease in the amount of money they receive each month starting in June.
That’s because increased food stamp amounts were tied to Georgia’s COVID emergency.
Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision not to renew Georgia’s COVID emergency declaration in mid-April triggered the end of the federal program that provided extra food aid to almost 777,000 Georgians each month.
Each household received, at the very least, an additional $95 per month, said Kylie Winton, spokesman for the state Department of Human Services, which oversees the food stamp program in Georgia. Some families received much more.
But in June, food benefit calculations will return to the pre-COVID method that is tied to a family’s size, income, and expenses, Winton said.
The decrease in food stamps — also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — comes at a time of rising food costs.
Georgia can expect “a very abrupt hunger cliff,” said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director for the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group in Washington.
“It’s going to hit different households somewhat differently, but it’s going to hit them all and it’s going to them hard,” she said.
State food stamp recipients were receiving close to a total of $119 million each month in the extra pandemic funding, according to Georgia’s latest filing with the federal agency that runs the program.
“That economic boost is going to be lost,” said Vollinger.
“This is going to cause a lot of additional strain for individuals and families,” said Ife Finch Floyd, a senior economic justice policy analyst with the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute in Atlanta. “That may mean you’re buying less food because your other sources of income, your cash, might have to go to other things: rent, utilities, gas.”
Food banks across the state are gearing up for increased demand while also dealing with rising costs of food and fuel prices.
Though food demand is below its initial peak during the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020 and the first half of 2021, the Atlanta Community Food Bank is still distributing 30% to 35% more food than it did pre-pandemic.
“Our costs are higher at a time when demand is increasing,” said Kyle Waide, the food bank’s president and CEO. The organization is paying more for food and its vehicle costs are up, mostly due to higher fuel prices.
“It was our preference that we find ways to extend the expanded, enhanced SNAP benefits in Georgia,” Waide said. “The state made its decision for a variety of reasons, not just because they didn’t want to extend benefits, but there are other factors that went into that decision.”
“These are complex issues. … We work closely with partners in Washington on both sides of the political spectrum. … Everybody we work with believes that everybody should have enough food.”
Most people who need food assistance, whether from food pantries or food stamps, work, Waide said.
Brandy Roe is one such hard-working Georgian concerned about the upcoming cuts in her food stamp benefits. The mother of five lives in Summerville. She works at a shoe store, and her husband is a mechanic.
“Getting the maximum benefit amount of SNAP really, really helped us be able to get things caught up and try to stay ahead of the game,” Roe said about the increased food benefit amounts.
Roe estimated the amount of food funds her family received increased by about $600, enough to cover almost all of the family’s monthly food costs.
“We’ll do the best we can” when the food aid decreases next month, said Roe. “If it comes down to that, we’ll eat lots of sandwiches.”
Roe said she isn’t convinced the pandemic is over, noting she lost several family members to COVID and has recently noticed longer lines at the Urgent Care she passes on her way home from work.
“Maybe Georgia has really jumped the gun,” she said.
Earlier this spring, the General Assembly passed an omnibus mental health reform bill aimed at turning around the state’s dismal mental health outcomes.
But without an adequate supply of nutritious food, it could be hard to address the mental health issues facing the state, said Dr. Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Obesity and Food Policy at the University of Connecticut.
“There is research showing that you are at higher risk of mental health issues like depression and anxiety if you’re food insecure,” Schwartz said. “To think you can address mental health when you’re not addressing just basic needs, like food and housing, you’re not going to get very far.”
Earlier this month, Kemp announced the award of millions of dollars from federal relief funds to Georgia organizations to help offset the economic impact of the pandemic.
Around $39 million of that will go to four organizations specifically focused on hunger: America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia, a food bank in Savannah, the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Meals on Wheels of Middle Georgia, and the Georgia Mountain Food Bank.
“We’ve enjoyed tremendous support from the governor,” said Waide, the Atlanta food bank president.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.