On a Monday morning, cars line up at the Broad Street Presbyterian Church outside downtown Columbus, waiting to retrieve items from its pantry.
Demetric Blankenship and Orville Sharp III, however, do not have the luxury of a vehicle, having arrived on foot or by bus. They bring their portions to a small park outside the church entrance, examining what they have and packing them into whatever bags they can carry.
Blankenship frantically searched his portion, but there was one thing he didn’t see. “Got more meat?” he shouted at Sharp.
“They only gave me one, that’s all I have,” Sharp replied.
Food banks and low-income Ohioans struggle to get fresh, healthy food as food prices soar, due to labor shortages and chain disruptions of supply caused by COVID-19. The pandemic has also worsened food insecurity in Ohio, with 334,000 more people served by food pantries in March than two years ago.
Some fear it will get worse.
When the federal government potentially ends its declaration of a COVID-19 emergency in July, significant increases to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, will also disappear for at least 700,000 Ohio households. .
More people are expected to start showing up in pantries this summer. Food banks, which are asking for more state money to help, may have to turn people away.
“Hell is going to break loose,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
Food Stamp Boost
About $120 million a month has gone up in food stamps in Ohio since the federal government authorized large increases at the start of the pandemic, when COVID-19 orders shut down businesses and millions of jobs had been lost.
Sharp said before the pandemic, he individually earned more than $180 a month. Now he earns around $260. This corresponds to the average increase in the SNAP benefit of about $100 per person in the United States.
Some households, like those with older adults, have seen hundreds of dollars in increases. A senior living alone might have received $16 per month in 2019, but during the pandemic they received $234 per month. This is a reality with which many have lived for two years.
The sudden return to pre-pandemic levels can force harsh budget adjustments and catch many beneficiaries off guard, as was the case with Blankenship, which was unaware of the potential change.
“They should have communicated to us more and let us know that it is we who have to suffer,” he said of the government.
Hunger advocates have hailed the increase in benefits and have long said food stamp amounts are never enough. They point to studies and data that have shown that SNAP and other nutritional aids prevented a much worse hunger situation during the pandemic.
Not everyone is convinced. A dozen other states, mostly Republican-led, pulled out of SNAP improvements early, citing the need to get out of the pandemic and get people back to work.
“We are now at the stage where the generosity of the federal government pumping and sending money is contributing to inflation and high prices,” said Rea Hederman of the Buckeye Institute, a conservative think tank. He did not take a position on whether Ohio should have withdrawn as well.
Governor Mike DeWine’s administration has stuck with the enhanced SNAP portion (which is 100% federally funded) and seems likely to continue to do so.
Several people picking up food at Broad Street Church were grateful for the increased benefits, saying they would take what they could get. But even with the increased perks, they were still in the pantry for a reason.
“It’s never enough,” Sharp said. “If it was just for me, it would be fine. But I have a big family.”
Impact on the ground
Many Ohioans have seen their food stamps buy fewer items at the grocery store as inflation rises. Healthier foods are especially more expensive.
“I really can’t afford much. They say I’m supposed to be on a special diabetic diet, and I can’t afford it,” Carol Haag said, as she loaded food into a shopping cart she brought to the pantry. “I can’t afford to eat vegetables or have protein because everything is so high.”
She said she also faces pressure from higher rent and if other living costs start to rise, she may have to use some of her Social Security money to pay for her food.
Sharp said it has adapted to the higher prices by acquiring more canned or canned products which have a longer shelf life and can be spread over longer periods. Others say they simply skipped meals.
“Sometimes I’d rather not eat,” said Blankenship, who said he has kidney disease and wants to avoid cheaper fried foods as much as possible.
That’s why many have turned to food banks for access to healthy food, but even an option that may not last. Donations and volunteers have declined. Obtaining food, especially meat, is exponentially more difficult and more expensive.
After:Pantries in Ohio and Greater Columbus struggle to feed hunger amid runaway inflation
When asked what they would do when their food stamps were cut, many pantry workers said they should hit the pantry even harder. But Hamler-Fugitt, along with the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, isn’t so sure.
“Once these cuts come into effect, we will simply ration food,” she said. “That’s all we can do. We will ration food. And small food banks are already cutting back.”
A relief ?
To prepare for the end of the COVID-19 emergency, Hamler-Fugitt said his group is asking the state for $183 million from its American Rescue Plan Act. About $50 million is needed now to help address the immediate issues food banks are currently facing.
A good amount would be used to buy food to make up for lost donations and dwindling food supply. Other investments include hiring staff, purchasing vehicles for food delivery, expanding warehouses, and purchasing equipment.
Hamler-Fugitt said she contacted the DeWine administration in October and was providing updates. Discussions with lawmakers are also underway.
“We will do everything in our power to serve the people who turn to us, but currently we cannot replace the $120 million in lost SNAP benefits,” she said.
The Office of Budget and Management said all American Rescue Plan Act requests are still pending and would need to be addressed by the state legislature. North Canton Rep. Scott Oelslager, who chairs the Ohio House finance committee, said he was aware of the request but could not say if anything would happen until the summer.
“That will be one of the issues that we will deal with once we see where we are and once we see where the money is coming in,” he said.
At the federal level, President Joe Biden’s administration last year permanently increased SNAP benefits by their largest amount on record, by more than 25%. That means the cuts won’t be as big when the emergency ends. Legislation in Congress could further expand the scope of the program.
The best-case scenario, Hamler-Fugitt said, is for the COVID-19 emergency to be extended again beyond July, so that additional benefit payments are maintained.
But for those relying on food stamps, they said they can’t think too much about the future. Food must be on the table now.
“We’re just trying to survive,” Blankenship said.
Titus Wu is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news outlets in Ohio.