LOWELL – The coronavirus pandemic has not only created new problems throughout Massachusetts, but has also worsened issues already plaguing the state. According to a member of the Mass Law Reform Institute, one of those worsened problems is food insecurity.
Patricia Baker, a member of the institute, stressed this concern during a Zoom meeting of the Lowell Hunger & Homeless Commission on Wednesday.
Baker specifically noted that Massachusetts suffered the highest increase in food insecurity in the country since the start of the pandemic, caused by the increase in unemployment numbers this summer, the overall high cost of living in the state and high costs of food in the state due to it being imported from outside state lines.
“We have a crisis here,” Baker said.
Another sign of worsened food insecurity is the increase in residents applying for SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. An offering of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, SNAP provides monthly financial assistance to struggling families so they can buy healthy groceries for themselves and their children. Those looking to apply for SNAP benefits must be Massachusetts residents and meet certain requirements regarding their bank balance, employment search, how many people of a certain age live with them in one household and how many of those people one prepares meals for.
According to Baker, the number of households in Massachusetts that qualified for SNAP increased from around 440,000 before May of 2020 to around 530,000 around June of 2020. Those numbers eventually went down below 500,000 close to September, which Baker attributed to many families receiving $600 weekly pandemic unemployment compensation passed by Congress last year, which was countable as income and caused families to lose their eligibility for SNAP benefits. The SNAP numbers did increase back to over 510,000 sometime last month and Baker noted an estimated steady increase to occur throughout the year if the pandemic continues
“People have sort-of clawed their way back on to the program,” Baker added. “It’s about a 17% increase overall this year.”
Because of the increased need for SNAP not just in Massachusetts but throughout the nation, Congress gave SNAP users a 15% cost-of-living boost last month. Effective Jan. 1 this year, the average boost is about $27 a month per person in a family. However, the boost is only in effect until June 30 this year unless Congress extends it. The boost shows in the monthly amount allotted to certain households. Between January and June of this year, a household of one can receive a monthly SNAP benefit of $234 while a household of six can receive a monthly SNAP benefit of $1,114. This is a major increase compared to benefits offered between October 2019 and September 2020, when a household of one could receive $194 per month and a household of six could receive $921 per month.
“This is a very, very significant boost and our hope is that Congress will pass an extension beyond June 30,” Baker added. “Every family eligible for SNAP now will get the maximum benefits with the 15% boost back to January first and, we assume, going forward in February, March, April and May that this will be built into the benefits.”
There are other options of food assistance, one of them being P-EBT or Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer. EBT is the electronic system that allows SNAP users to pay for food. P-EBT was created last spring to provide additional funds for families who need to buy more food for their children who’ve lost breakfast and lunch from school closures. Last spring, over 500,000 Massachusetts children who previously got free or reduced-priced meals through the school before the pandemic received P-EBT benefits. From last October to this coming June, students doing fully-remote learning earn $117.20 per month while students doing hybrid learning but still not getting school meals get $58.60 per month.
Baker stressed the need for local and federal representatives to not only continue supporting these efforts, but expanding and improving them in ways to make it easier for families to order groceries online with SNAP benefits.
“The scary prospect is, come the end of June, suddenly we may not have the 15% boost and we may not have Pandemic-EBT and that’s when, I think, we’re going to be really looking hard at what we need to do to continue those benefits,” Baker noted.