SALT LAKE CITY — Utah families who rely on government assistance to eat are being warned to stock up while they can and budget carefully in case the federal government's partial shutdown drags on.
Utah's Department of Workforce Services reported Wednesday that approximately 75,000 households in the state receive nutrition benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. As the longest shutdown in U.S. history continues with no end in sight, officials said recipients can expect to receive their benefits through next month, but they may face problems in March if the political battle isn't resolved.
"There is an opportunity to issue February funding early because of an expiring continuing resolution (in Congress)," explained Department of Workforce Services Eligibility Director Dale Ownby. In distributing the benefits ahead of time, he said the department hopes to give recipients time to stock up in case of a prolonged shutdown, but was quick to note that at this point no more funding will be available when March rolls around.
"It's not extra. It's an advanced payment," he said. "Customers who are our ongoing customers may not receive SNAP again until March — and that is only if funding is restored."
He reminded recipients they will need to budget carefully and avoid spending their monthly allotment too soon because they are not going to get another issuance next month.
Advocates expressed dismay at the situation many families currently find themselves in due to political wrangling within the federal government.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, the executive director of Utahns Against Hunger said the situation is an unnecessary hardship on families that already are dealing with as much as they can handle.
"The shutdown is more political than it is anything," said Gina Cornia. "This could end tomorrow. The fact they are holding hostage low-income Americans who depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to put food on the table is not only unnecessary, but it is immoral."
Cornia noted that families on food assistance typically spend about $1.27 per meal and have little flexibility in their household budgets to weather such a dramatic pending disruption.
"It's a really uncertain and really scary time for low-income families," she said. The state issues between $20 million and $25 million in food stamp benefits every month, she noted, leaving virtually no way to fill the void if federal funding is not reinstituted.
Speaking at her organization's warehouse, Utah Food Bank president and CEO Ginette Bott said shelves of food inventory are ready to be distributed to food pantries if and when needed. She said the food bank is currently well stocked due to a "very giving and gracious" holiday season and can support the state's 150 food pantry partners for the next few months if the shutdown continues.
She said the pantries can last through next month and into March before the food bank would have to increase its regular distributions. In the meantime, it is preparing just in case the need arises in the coming few months.
"We are procuring additional product and storing it off-site," Bott said. "We're in the process of aligning additional transportation and drivers if we need to increase our deliveries."
While the food bank is planning for the worst case scenario, she said there is still a concern if two major food assistance programs are left without funding due to the shutdown. One program would impact low-income seniors, while the other would affect young children who could lose their evening meal of the day, she said.
"We provide about 2,200 meals a day to kids," Bott said. "We could probably continue the program until the end of the school year without government funding."
The fact they are holding hostage low-income Americans who depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to put food on the table is not only unnecessary, but it is immoral.
One major concern is being able to provide meals to children in the summer, when schools are on the three-month break and they have no other options.
"Summer feeding is our biggest time for kids," she said. "Last summer, we did 100,000 lunches to kids throughout the state of Utah. Without government funding, we can't do that program."
She said over the next three or four months, the population of people who use their services could "have some real challenges" if a shutdown resolution isn't found.