Everyone knew extra federal food stamp allotments would end. But the timing couldn't be worse.
Ebony Williams, 30, and her daughter Schyrinity, 11, stood in the lobby of the Despensa De La Paz food pantry on a cold January Saturday, quietly watching as people bustled past them and into a packed waiting room.
They were there for staple foods and supplies: canned vegetables, meat and chili; some bottled water so they don't have to drink from the lead pipes that service their home.
In addition to Schrinity, Williams has two other mouths to feed at home: a 1-year-old and a newborn. Her visits to the pantry help her stretch the benefits she gets through the state's FoodShare Program and the $67 she gets from the Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC) further at the grocery store. The food benefits help her appease her pre-teen's sometimes-picky taste buds. When she doesn't like the meals provided at school, Schyrinity needs something from home or she just won't eat.
Williams works in group homes assisting elderly residents. She works four- to six-hour shifts during the weekdays, and 12- to 16-hour overnight shifts every other weekend. Her schedule is always changing ― and so is her paycheck. She's been asking her boss to pick up more hours, because her rent recently went up from $700 a month to $900. Her monthly budget is a balancing act, one that requires constant recalibration so she can make ends meet.
That balancing act has been harder each month, as groceries, rent, and even utilities have all gone up.
"The groceries just like went high, like there's no pack of ground beef under $10. So the money that (FoodShare) is giving us, the $500 (per month), it goes like this," Williams said, snapping her fingers.
And the next big financial hit is looming on the horizon.
A few weeks ago, the federal government announced the extra food stamp allotments that every FoodShare participant in the state has been receiving during the pandemic will cease at the end of February.
Added onto households' usual benefits, these emergency allotments brought families up to the maximum allotment available for their household size, or gave them an extra $95, whichever was greater.
The pandemic payments put approximately $80 million per month more in the pockets of Wisconsinites facing hunger, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. There are currently some 400,000 households on FoodShare in Wisconsin. In 2021, the program served 771,688 people, 266,063 of them in Milwaukee County.
Though advocates and recipients alike anticipated the eventual end of the pandemic payments, the unexpectedly abrupt loss of these extra benefits comes at a time when even families with means are seeing their money stretch less far at the grocery store.
While demand at food pantries was high at the start of the pandemic, food banks said they saw some respite as the additional food stamp benefits kicked in. Fewer families had to come to them to get the foods they couldn't afford to purchase. But in recent months, the landscape has changed entirely, as rising prices of staple foods like eggs and meat have meant longer lines at pantries ― even with the additional FoodShare money still available.
And prices aren't just rising for food: cash-strapped families have been hit on all sides, as rent, utilities and other basic living costs have jumped.
The turmoil of the pandemic has taught Williams to be able to adjust to just about anything. She's already started to make sacrifices and calculations to make sure her bills get paid. Weekly activities, like $5 Tuesdays at the movies, have become a luxury that can't be afforded.
"Now that they've cut (the extra FoodShare) off, I have to shift everything around, to say, 'We can't do this this week, because we need extra gas money,'" she said.
The state health department, which administers the FoodShare program, is asking recipients to make sure that their household information is updated so they are receiving all of the benefits for which they are eligible. It is also encouraging people to reach out to food pantries and other community organizations for additional support.
“These additional funds provided to eligible Wisconsinites because of COVID-19 have made a real difference," said DHS Deputy Secretary Deb Standridge. "With Congress deciding to end these federal funds, community support for local resources like food pantries and food banks will be more important than ever.”
But pantries and food banks are warning that there is simply no way they will be able to fill in the gap.
"I would anticipate that by summer we're going to have a full-blown food crisis in Milwaukee County," said Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Hunger Task Force. "In my history, and I've only been here about 25 years, it's about as bad as it could get."
Families in FoodShare will lose hundreds at a time of high grocery costs
Wisconsin FoodShare recipients have been getting two payments each month: their regular benefits sometime in the first half of the month, and the additional pandemic payments in the second half. The payments in the second half of the month are the ones that will stop coming in March.
According to data from the state health department, in December, the average amount of regular benefits received by single-person households was $170. The average amount of their extra pandemic benefits was $144. In the same month, the average amount of regular benefits received by household of four was $580. The average amount of their extra pandemic benefits was $354.
Advocates express particular concern for some recipients who have been receiving the maximum allotment for a household of one ― $281 per month ― and will soon drop to the minimum of $23 per month. Many of the people in this situation are seniors, who are living on a fixed income from Social Security benefits.
According to data from the state health department, about 17% of Wisconsin's single-person FoodShare households are eligible for only the minimum benefit amount. Just under 40% of single-person households are at the maximum benefit, meaning they would lose the extra $95 per month.
In Milwaukee's Harambee neighborhood, WestCare Wisconsin's food pantry coordinator Audrey Wilson stitches together a patchwork of connections in a weekly quest to feed some 100 people. The pantry also supplies food to several low-income housing complexes.
The pantry receives 3,000-5,000 pounds of food per week from Feeding America-Eastern Wisconsin's food bank. Wilson also receives food from local grocery stores, and farms such as Beulah Family Homestead, which donate fresh organic produce to city pantries.
She worries especially for the children and the elderly people she serves.
"This is going to force seniors to make decisions: 'Do I pay my bill, or do I get my medication? I also need to buy food,'" she said.
Wilson said many of the seniors she works with are going to fall back to the minimum benefit of $23. She also already sees single-parents trying to pick up extra shifts or jobs just to make ends meet as basic living costs rise.
"I have some families that come here, young mothers that have four, five kids," Wilson said. "And they're doing their best to try to make ends meet, let alone making sure that their kids are in school and they have the proper nutrition so that their brains can function and they can learn and comprehend what's being taught to them in the classroom."
According to the U.S. Department of Education's Consumer Price Index for Food, in 2022, food prices at grocery stores and supermarkets increased 11.4%. They're predicted to increase another 8% this year.
Cost of living increases during the pandemic have resulted in some increases to the amount of benefits people can receive from FoodShare, so one silver lining, advocates say, is that people will not be dropping back to their pre-pandemic benefit levels. According to the state DHS, maximum allotment amounts have gone up approximately 34% from pre-pandemic levels during the past two years due to those cost of living increases.
But no one is suggesting that's enough to stem lines at food pantries.
Matt Stienstra, director of strategic partnerships and programs at Feeding America-Eastern Wisconsin, saw firsthand the power that the emergency FoodShare allotments had on the people who receive them.
In 2020, when the pandemic hit, the amount of need was acute. Unemployment jumped. Families were running out of money, not knowing where to turn. Use of food pantries peaked and lines of cars stretched outside. As people learned about all of the programs that were available to them, including FoodShare, those lines dissipated, Stienstra said.
"People could show up with dignity at a grocery store just like everyone else, and get the foods that fit their dietary needs and cultural food preferences," Stienstra said.
Last fall, everything changed again.
"We started seeing reports roll in from food pantries of increasing lines," he said. "And now it is the norm at every pantry we hear from. They say that their lines are bigger than when the pandemic was going on."
Food banks ask: What happens when we run out of food?
Back at Despensa De La Paz, Charlene Szymakowski, 39, a single mother of two teens, sat in the waiting room, the rising price of meat on her mind.
"I knew it would never be permanent," she said of the extra allotments. "I knew because of the COVID pandemic; that's why they were giving it."
The end of the month is when things always get tight ― for her and many other Wisconsin FoodShare recipients. Regular visits to the pantry help bridge the gap, especially when she's not working one of several temporary jobs she uses to get by when her disability benefits aren't enough. She and her family eat "cheap stuff" by the end of the month, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ramen noodles. But meat is what pushes her over, making it so she can't roll anything into the next month.
Not everyone is at the pantry for food.
Hermania De La Caridad Pino stood outside for some fresh air. Her kids, 6-year-old Damien and 3-year-old Gorgeous, played at her feet. She's a FoodShare recipient, and sometimes relies on the pantry for food. But this day, she just needed diapers and baby wipes.
"We're going to have to paint potatoes and not eggs this Easter, huh?" Pino laughed wryly when asked about the soaring cost of eggs.
Food pantries often serve more than people who need food, and more than people who are on FoodShare. That includes those who do not meet the income threshold to qualify for food stamps, or who have not applied for benefits. As a result, the pending decline in FoodShare benefits will put a greater strain on the food pantry system.
"We do 10 million pounds of food a year. We supply 51 food pantries here in Milwaukee County, and another dozen soup kitchens and homeless shelters," Tussler said. "All those groups rely on us. People in Milwaukee rely on us. So what happens when the institution that has always been the leader and dependable in this area runs out of food?"
Tussler anticipates more families will find themselves rationing meals, eating fewer meals or smaller portions. Adults may skip meals to make sure kids have enough to eat.
"We're going to have to start going real low, change our eating habits," said Ginny Zepeda, 61, another FoodShare recipient who was at Despensa De La Paz. "We can't go out to eat, we can't do none of that, because all our money is bills and the house."
Zepeda had been hoping to move out of her current apartment, which has mice and many other issues. But those plans are now on hold. Her family keeps meals cheap and simple.
Even with the emergency allotments in place, Despensa De La Paz would serve 700 people across 170 households that Saturday ― one of the five busiest days in the past 12 months, said Sophia Torrijos, executive director of Friedens Food Pantries, which runs Despensa and three other area pantries.
"It's been getting busier each month. I think we've served roughly 30% more families in 2022 compared to 2021, and that's with emergency allotments still in place," Torrijos said. "So March truly has the potential to be a disaster for organizations and families."
Some advocates are even warning that the end of the extra benefits could ripple through the state's overall food economy. Statewide, since the extra pandemic payments began in 2020, Wisconsin has provided $2.2 billion in extra benefits to FoodShare members, according to Wisconsin DHS data. In calendar year 2022, the total amount was just under $918 million.
Pantries and food banks say they're being hit from both sides, as they also recently lost most of the pandemic-era programs that helped them buy food directly from producers.
In the early months of the pandemic, Michael Hlubek, general manager of Chalet Cheese Co-Op in Monroe, was warning the 11 dairy farmers who are members of the co-op that their financial troubles might be reaching the point where the farmers would need to cut production or the co-op would have to dump milk. The co-op produces award-winning Swiss and baby Swiss. It is also the only manufacturer of Limburger cheese in the country.
The small, Wisconsin operation supports the livelihoods of 23 employees, Hlubek said, plus the dairy farmers it works with. Direct purchases by Hunger Task Force were critical.
"They actually saved us that year from what would have been just a disaster," he said of the food bank.
Hunger Task Force became one of the co-op's largest purchasers during the pandemic. Now, rising prices of all of the co-op's supplies ― cardboard boxes, bacterial cultures, salt ― are pushing it to raise prices at the store. Hlubek worries about losing customers who can't afford their cheeses and other foods at the higher price. Now is not the time to be cutting the funding that people use to buy healthy food, he said.
"I'm not a politician. I'm not political. But these politicians need to understand that the impact is huge, and these decisions are affecting a lot of people," Hlubek said.
A monthly struggle to stay healthy
Extra FoodShare payments allowed 60-year-old Denise Guzlecki to enjoy a few "splurges" while at the grocery store: her favorite sugar-free tea or soda, some pre-cut fruit, sweetener.
Guzlecki has diabetes, and recently broke her shoulder. She sat on one of the few available chairs at Despenza De La Paz, with her friend and neighbor, Trisha Beckom, by her side. The two live in an affordable housing complex in Bay View.
Guzlecki relies on Social Security income and FoodShare to make ends meet, and to manage her health condition. At the beginning of January, she got $113 for groceries. The additional payment for the month had just come in that day: $165.
"$113 isn't going to cut (it to get) the food I need to maintain the diabetes," she said. "With this extra money, it helped out a lot."
She has already stopped buying fresh meat entirely, instead stocking up on canned tuna and Spam.
"I'm literally scared," she said. "I'm panicking."
State health officials and food pantries are encouraging FoodShare recipients to roll over what they can into the months to come to soften the financial blow. The emergency benefits can be rolled over for a year after they're issued.
At Feeding America-Eastern Wisconsin, Stienstra urged people not to panic. In addition to rolling over benefits, he encouraged FoodShare recipients to make sure they are enrolled in school and other food programs.
The federal government is reallocating the money that was used to fund the extra FoodShare benefits to start a summer free lunch program for schools. A DHS spokeswoman said the details of how this program would work in Wisconsin are not yet available.
Stienstra and others questioned sacrificing one food program for another. The extra pandemic funding showed that having a well-funded nutrition program works, he said.
"Food pantries are there when there's a crack in the system and someone can't make ends meet. But they're never meant to be something that people rely on month after month after month," Stienstra said. "They're there to get people through the hard times."
For Guzlecki and Beckom, 54, the advice to roll over benefits has provided little sense of ease.
"You can never get ahead," Beckom said. "Every time you think you're like two dollars up, you're down 50 cents. It's every month. Every month is the same thing. It's worry. It's struggle."
Contact Devi Shastri at 414-224-2193 or DAShastri@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DeviShastri.
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Wisconsin families reliant on extra food benefits brace for change