By Sam Woods
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
With FoodShare emergency allotments scheduled to end this month, food pantries and emergency food providers are preparing for a significant increase in demand over the next few months that may strain their ability to feed people.
The emergency allotments were an extra amount of credit that FoodShare recipients received on their accounts since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. These allotments were at least $95 per month and often much more depending on income-level and household size.
February was the last month that these allotments were sent to FoodShare recipients’ accounts. FoodShare is Wisconsin’s name for its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP and historically referred to as “food stamps.”
Emergency food providers have known about the cut in allotments since January and have worked with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the state agency that runs the FoodShare program, to get the word out about the changes.
But these providers still believe a sizable number of those affected are either unaware of the changes or don’t have enough in their budgets and will need emergency food assistance in the coming months.
Together, Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin and the Hunger Task Force supply most of the food pantries in Milwaukee.
Maureen Fitzgerald, vice president of government relations at Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, said the emergency allotments helped “shorten the line” at food pantries and alleviate economic pressure for food price inflation and COVID-19 pandemic-related economic challenges when they began in 2020.
As emergency allotments end, families in Milwaukee and across the country will have to come up with money to budget for basic needs such as food.
“It’s 700,000 people across Wisconsin that use FoodShare, and every single one of them will see their benefits cut,” she said. “2023 is going to be an extraordinary year for food pantries across the country and across Wisconsin.”
Despite sending out emails, updating user information, physical mail and knocking on doors, food pantries and emergency food providers know their efforts won’t reach everyone.
“Even though we try to get the word out, and DHS has tried to get the word out, most people will not find out until they go to the grocery store and their QUEST card doesn’t work,” Fitzgerald said.
In addition, food pantries across Milwaukee have already been seeing an increase in traffic for several months. This is because of a variety of factors, but leaders of food pantries say the increase in food prices during the pandemic have resulted in more service demands.
‘A little overwhelmed’
Sophia Torrijos, executive director at Friedens Food Pantries, said she’s seen an influx of traffic at her pantries because of rising food prices and a recent influx of asylum seekers from Nicaragua.
“We’re already feeling a little overwhelmed. We often can’t get through a shift without restocking, and it is hard to maintain a welcoming experience,” for food recipients, she said.
Lyn Hildenbrand, executive director at The Gathering, also reported a surge in traffic since the beginning of the year. She said many of the people her organization serves work at least one job.
“We see men coming in before work or after third shift, and a lot of school bus drivers are stopping by,” Hildenbrand said.
“We were founded to feed the homeless and hungry of Milwaukee, but we’ve noticed our trends are going more to folks who are working but just can’t make ends meet,” she added.
Both Torrijos and Hildenbrand said the end of emergency allotments will hit seniors and people with children the hardest. Parents are likely to lose hundreds of dollars in monthly benefits, and most seniors will see their monthly benefits drop from nearly $300 per month to $23 per month.
“What can you buy with $23? I go to the grocery store and get two bags of items and it’s $75,” Hildenbrand said.
‘A little scary right now’
Whether food pantries run out of food entirely is currently a question mark. If they do, it will likely not be immediately following the end of emergency allotments this month, but within the next several months.
Hildenbrand noted that it is “a little scary right now,” but she is not currently concerned that her locations will run out of food entirely.
However, Armondo Diaz, food pantry manager at House of Peace, said he is preparing for the possibility.
“We’ve already been noticing an impact with delivery agencies having to scale back,” Diaz said.
Torrijos remains optimistic that her pantries will not run out of food but also noted that the coming months will pose a huge test.
“We’re definitely not trying to create panic, and we have faith that we will come together” to meet the food needs of Milwaukee residents, Torrijos said. “But this is the time to come together.”
What you can do
VOLUNTEER AND DONATE: Leaders of food pantries say there are two main ways people can help. One is through conventional means, such as volunteering at a food pantry or donating money to help them continue purchasing food.
TALK TO ELECTED OFFICIALS: Food pantries and emergency food providers also noted that the end of emergency allotments is a public policy choice that can be remedied through legislative action. This means calling state and national lawmakers to talk about the impact of FoodShare cuts and to find a way of restoring FoodShare payments to previous levels.
Both Fitzgerald and Sherrie Tussler, executive director at Hunger Task Force, stressed the importance of talking to elected officials.
Tussler noted the congressional 2023 Farm Bill as an opportunity for legislative action. The federal bill, currently under construction, will become a multiyear policy for funding food-related programs such as FoodShare.
IF YOU NEED HELP, GET IT: For those needing help now, officials insist you can still come to food pantries and that there is no need to feel like you are “taking someone’s spot” if your other options are skipping meals.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ALL YOUR BENEFITS: Tussler also suggested FoodShare members make sure to report all of their expenses in their accounts, particularly medical expenses. Doing this can help members realize the full benefit they are entitled to.
“Getting what you are entitled to is a form of self-care,” she said.