Jason Major has received $1,100 per month in federal food assistance for the last three years, but will only receive about $275 this month after pandemic emergency allotments for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ended March 1.
The extra pandemic spending for SNAP programs, or food stamps, provided enough money for Major and his wife, Kathryn, to feed their family of five, including three children ages four to 11.
Major manages the Walsh Motel in Grayland, but razor clam digs on local beaches — a usual draw to the area for outsiders — have been shut down this winter because of high toxin levels, leaving hotels largely vacant and putting a strain on Major’s budget.
While Major said his kids won’t go hungry, he said the SNAP rollback will force a shift in the family’s spending and have a “very significant impact on my day-to-day financials.”
Across the state, 520,000 families saw their SNAP allotments reduced March 1 because of an end to pandemic-era spending from the federal government. In December, Congress voted to end the extra SNAP benefits as part of a yearly appropriations bill, cutting additional benefits in states that hadn’t already done so, like Washington, where cuts amount to about $90 million in total.
For most people, the reductions weren’t as large as they were for the Major family. On average, cuts in SNAP amounted to $171 per client, according to the Washington Department of Health and Social Services.
But the reductions come as increased demand on food banks, which started during the pandemic, has continued to surge, while suppliers still face supply chain issues and families battle inflation, prompting the state Legislature to take action to help fill some of those gaps.
About 11% of people in Washington state rely on benefits from SNAP. That proportion is more significant in Grays Harbor County, where about 20% of people are SNAP recipients, according to DSHS.
In March 2020, Congress passed a law providing emergency allotments to SNAP households intended to navigate initial hardships of the pandemic. SNAP recipients, whose awards were previously calculated based on income, began to receive the maximum monthly allotment, which is set by USDA. Those already receiving maximum allotments got an extra $95 per month.
Major said feeding his family of five has grown increasingly expensive in the last three years. He guessed he’s spending twice as much on groceries now than he was in 2019, using his maximum SNAP allotment.
State data shows the number of people receiving SNAP benefits in Washington declined from 2021 to 2022. But those who did receive benefits were receiving more, on average, than a year earlier.
“That’s a significant amount of money you’re not trying to find in the rest of your budget,” Major said.
Other food sources are filling the gaps left by the expired SNAP benefits. Major said he’s been more strategic about taking advantage of sales at grocery stores, stocking up on meats and canned goods. His kids can eat meals at school, while a local church has provided lunches and produce.
DSHS has encouraged clients to utilize the SNAP Market Match program, which stretches the value of food stamps for purchases of fruits and vegetables. In addition, Major said he was able to qualify for a Working Families Tax Credit through the state.
Ultimately, though, Major said he’ll probably start to rely more heavily on local food banks, which he has never visited on a regular basis.
The food frontlines
The Aberdeen Food Bank is in a much different space — literally and figuratively — than it was when the pandemic began.
The all-volunteer food bank recently moved into a building at 2120 Commerce St. in Aberdeen. There, Director Cher Spencer hopes to open up a grocery-style bank in a large concrete room, where visitors will be able to walk in and pick out foods. For now, it distributes pre-packaged brown bags of food, each with different amounts based on family size.
About an hour after the food bank opened on Tuesday it had served 225 families — 25 more than a typical day. Spencer said the food bank didn’t know if the SNAP reduction, specifically, had caused more people to come that day.
“Even before that happened our numbers were rising,” Spencer said. “We’re only bracing for it.”
The Aberdeen Food Bank served over 10,000 families in 2022 — three times the number of families it served in 2019. Early data from 2023 show it’s on pace to serve even more than that this year.
Kim Gilbert, service center coordinator of the Salvation Army in Aberdeen, said the food bank there is also serving about three times as many people as it was about one year ago. Gilbert told The Daily World in December that the food bank was seeing hundreds of new people each month.
Gilbert guessed the Salvation Army could feed 1,000 people — higher than average for the last few years — in the coming months.
While food banks now have more mouths to feed, the inventory received from local suppliers has shrunk.
Coastal Harvest is a Hoquiam hunger relief nonprofit that distributes food to more than 60 frontline groups in the region, and is a major supplier to Grays Harbor food banks. Coastal Harvest Executive Director Brent Hunter said the influx of federal support for hunger relief during the pandemic has dried up, yet supply chain issues are lingering.
Food Lifeline, another distributor to local food banks, said in a recent newsletter that its food inventory is one-quarter of pre-pandemic levels.
Less food from Coastal Harvest forced the Salvation Army to decrease the number of repeat visits allowed each month. For Spencer, it’s meant buying more food with money from the food bank’s own budget, and looking for deals at local grocery stores.
“I’ve been trying to get my hands on potatoes, which normally 99% of the time I can get from Coastal Harvest. I had to go buy them,” Spencer said. “I went out to buy them and I was shocked at the prices. I don’t know how families are affording it without us.”
“We’re just trying to survive and get people fed,” Spencer said.
Recent proposals from the Washington state Legislature and Governor’s Office could send support to hunger relief agencies.
House Bill 1784, which passed the House without opposition and now sits in the Senate, would provide a $28 million advance in general fund dollars for food security in specific response to the end of emergency SNAP allocations.
Three-quarters of that money would be filtered through the Washington state Department of Agriculture, which would “mobilize resources quickly through direct food purchasing and EFAP (Emergency Food Assistance Program) allotments” if funded, according to Amber Betts, a spokesperson for WSDA.
Betts said the agency expects that “demand for emergency food will increase dramatically this month.”
EFAP provides funding to lead hunger relief agencies on a two-year basis. In the case of Grays Harbor, that agency is Coastal Harvest. If the bill passes, Coastal Harvest would receive additional funding, and would then “collaborate with the local hunger relief programs to make the best, community-informed use of those dollars,” Betts said.
But EFAP funding is only one part of Coastal Harvest’s funding, about 10%, Betts estimated.
Hunter said Coastal Harvest has shifted its focus to more local and regional farmers to try to fill some of the supply gaps. Agencies like Coastal Harvest also rely on community donations and philanthropic efforts, volunteers and local government funding, Betts said.
“We expect to see people affected by this, and they will undoubtedly seek services in some form of fashion, whether that be through us or somebody else in the state,” Hunter said.
Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or firstname.lastname@example.org.