Credit: (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
File photo: A volunteer (right) helps at the food pantry

Struggling New Jerseyans could see their monthly food assistance nearly double under a proposal designed to avert what advocates describe as a looming “hunger cliff” after federal emergency funding situations will end in February.

Lawmakers on Thursday unanimously approved a bill to set a minimum monthly payment of $95 for participants in SNAP, the state and federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that helps feed nearly 770,000 residents in nearly 400,000 homes.

Advocates are calling for new solutions they say will end the “jams” that impede progress

During the COVID-19 pandemic, families received a minimum of $95 per month, but starting March 1, the threshold will be $50. Before the pandemic, some residents were getting as little as $18 a month, advocates said.

“It would be a huge step backwards,” state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), a leader in the fight against food insecurity, said before the vote. “This bill recognizes that problem and mandates that the state must ensure that the bare minimum remains at $95.”

Coughlin’s proposal (A-5086), introduced earlier this month, requires several additional votes and action in the Senate before it can be codified into law. “It makes a difference in a lot of lives,” he said, adding that it would make New Jersey a national leader in the fight against hunger.

Feeding hungry children

About 1.4 million New Jersey residents are food insecure, including 400,000 children, according to state Assemblyman Reginald Atkins (D-Union), a pastor who runs a food pantry with his wife.

According to him, the demand for hot food and products is growing even among people who have a job “but need additional help”. Research shows that need varies by race and ethnicity, among blacks and Hispanics three and four times more likely to be hungry, respectively, than white people.

Adele Latourette, senior director of policy and advocacy for the Public Food Bank of New Jersey, said the need may be the greatest she’s seen in 40 years, suggesting it’s more like the Grand Canyon than just a cliff.

“Food pantries are seeing more numbers than they served during the pandemic,” she told lawmakers. “Everyone is at their best. They are really concerned.”

Grassroots efforts

Coughlin is leading a bipartisan effort to fight hunger in New Jersey by finding ways to bring back more of the state’s agricultural produce, increasing funding for food banks and soup kitchens, and lowering barriers to SNAP participation. The state has also identified at least 50 food deserts and plans to use tax incentives to encourage grocery stores to open in those communities.

Lawmakers are considering a package of 10 bills. Human rights activists say the problem is urgent, given the state’s high cost of living

In June, Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill making New Jersey the first incorporated state minimum SNAP benefit, the $50 monthly threshold that goes into effect in March is designed to offset the loss of an additional $45 per month in federal emergency dollars per person. The change will cost the state an additional $18 million a year, according to the Department of Human Services, which oversees the program.

“We understood that the additional SNAP benefits were temporary, but we also recognize that this will affect New Jerseyans who have received more assistance over the past three years,” state Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman said last week.

She encouraged SNAP recipients to visit nj211.org to find out about other help they are entitled to.

Economic considerations

But Coughlin and others said that’s no longer enough, given inflation and the shutdown of federal emergency funding linked to the pandemic — for SNAP and other social services. According to the Department of Human Services, which oversees the program, nearly $3 billion in additional state and federal funding has gone to SNAP participants since the pandemic began. Participation in the program as well up 23% in the midst of a pandemic, according to a Hunger Free New Jersey report.

“This program is right now on the brink of hunger,” said Maura Sanders, general counsel for the New Jersey Legal Service, which advocates for low-income residents. “We’ve had sleepless nights worrying about how this affects families, individuals, seniors,” she said, noting that working families are particularly at risk because of how benefits are calculated. Increasing minimum funding “is essential and really critical right now,” Sanders said.

New Jersey SNAP program already more generous than versions in many other states. It’s open to adults who earn up to 185% of the federal poverty limit — in many states it’s capped at 130% — which translates to just under $2,100 a month for an individual or $3,550 for a family of three. Benefits are determined by income, assets and certain expenses and are loaded onto the debit card each month.

Coughlin said some New Jersey residents were receiving as little as $18 a month in SNAP benefits before the pandemic, so the $50 minimum available in March is a clear step forward. But the state needs to increase that threshold to $95 so that none of the program’s participants see their grocery budgets shrink because of the loss of federal funds, he said, noting that his proposal would directly affect about 46,000 families.

“Imagine waking up every day and the first thing you had to do was figure out how to feed your family that day,” Coughlin said. “Not because you forgot to go to the store last night, but because there is nothing in the cupboard.”

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