The panicked phone calls started at the end of February. As the official notices of a significant reduction in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) allotments reached our neighbors, this new reality was sinking in.
The decision to take food resources away from approximately 785,000 low-income New Jersey residents (and millions of others across the country) happened hundreds of miles away many months ago, when Congress decided – and the President approved – a provision in the federal budget bill that rescinded a pandemic-related increase in monthly SNAP benefits.
With a stroke of a pen, lawmakers in Washington took away meals from children, seniors, working families, and many others. In Monmouth and Ocean Counties alone, nearly 88,000 of our neighbors – more than half of them children – are experiencing a monthly benefit cut of about $190 per household. The scope of such a loss – enough for approximately 1.5 million meals every month – is beyond the ability of charitable food assistance providers to make up.
Before these cuts even took effect, reliance on food pantries at the Shore was already around 70 percent higher than last year. Across Ocean and Monmouth Counties, Fulfill has been distributing food at an unprecedented rate, more even than at the height of the pandemic. We have been adding mobile pantry sites to supplement our network of food pantries and soup kitchens. While we take pride in supplying enough food for more than 1.1 million meals per month, we cannot pretend that charity is the answer to a failure of policy.
Federal policymakers’ justifications for this cut seem to have forgotten the obvious: that food is a survival need. To a family facing a sudden, drastic cutback of their food budget, it is hardly relevant that the increase in benefits, in place since March 2020, was always meant to be temporary, or that Congress would redirect those funds to another worthy purpose.
We are grateful for our state’s leadership – on the part of Governor Phil Murphy, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, and Senate President Nicholas Scutari – for mitigating the most severe cuts. Their swift, coordinated action raised the minimum monthly SNAP benefit from $23 to $95 in time to prevent the deepest harm to some of our most vulnerable neighbors, primarily seniors and people with disabilities. In addition, Governor Murphy’s budget proposes historic investments in food security.
So, what is the lesson here? The stroke of a lawmaker’s pen can do unthinkable harm – but it can also meaningfully improve lives. That is why your voice is so critical. This year, Congress begins negotiating the Farm Bill – our nation’s single biggest investment to address and prevent food insecurity. Our representatives in Washington need to hear from all of us that they must strengthen, not weaken, SNAP. Our representatives in Trenton must also hear that supporting – and expanding on – the investments for food security in the Governor’s budget proposal is a top priority.
What else can we do? Our charitable food assistance network is abundant in heart and will take heroic measures to respond to this new crisis – that’s what we do. But this network is short on resources. Most food pantries operate on shoestring budgets without a single paid staff member. If you are fortunate to have the means, please donate to your regional food bank or to a food pantry near you.
And if you or someone you know needs help? SNAP is still our first, best response to hunger. If you are not currently receiving SNAP, please call or email our Resource Connections Team for a screening to see if you qualify. And if you need immediate food assistance, text FINDFOOD or COMIDA to 888-918-2729 to find the nearest food pantry or soup kitchen.