Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when pandemic-related SNAP benefits had ended. We have corrected the error.
Dana Phillips has been stocking up on rice, beans and pasta for over a year waiting for her COVID-19 government benefits to be taken away.
With each trip to the grocery store, she would scrounge together a couple of dollars and get a few extra cans. Black. Red. Whatever was cheapest.
"I'm not going to let my kid starve," said Phillips, 49, whose small business providing services to local restaurants in Lansing, West Virginia, hasn't recovered since the COVID-19 shutdown last year.
Her worst fear has now come true.
The federal government is ending its enhanced unemployment and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments — the largest cutoff of federal benefits in U.S. history. The funding helped millions of Americans like Phillips ride out the COVID-19 pandemic and the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Experts are now preparing for an explosion in SNAP applications and private sector assistance as many people continue to struggle more than anticipated because of a lagging economic recovery and a surge in COVID-19 cases.
An estimated 11 million people were receiving $600 per week in unemployment benefits, according to the U.K.'s economic research firm Oxford Economics. After the Sept. 6 cutoff, about 8.9 million people will no longer receive any more unemployment benefits while another 2.1 million had their benefits reduced by $300 a week.
Pandemic-related SNAP benefits are also set to expire by Sept. 30. SNAP recipients have been getting a 15% boost since December, roughly $27 on top of an emergency allotment that granted households $95 a month.
With no plans from Congress to pass additional relief measures, some predict the need for charitable support will outpace last year's demand.
"We know that developing a comprehensive national safety net involves reassessing and strengthening existing social support programs," said Hossein Ayazi, a public policy analyst at the University of California, Berkeley's Othering and Belonging Institute. "Yet it also involves not ending the programs we have when we know there is still great need for them."
For Phillips, this means she's losing sleep all the time, worried she'll have to ration food for her and her 12-year-old son.
"SNAP benefits," she said, "are my lifeline."
Millions of Americans are filing for SNAP benefits
Conduent, an electronic payments company that processes SNAP payments, reported the number of SNAP recipients has increased to 12 million, an 18% increase since the start of the pandemic. EBT use typically follows the overall health of the economy, said Mark King, group president of Payment and Eligibility Solutions at Conduent.
The uptick continued through the summer as two-dozen Republican-led states decided to end pandemic federal benefits early for roughly 3.5 million Americans, claiming people preferred to collect unemployment instead of taking available jobs.
"We’re still seeing an elevated level compared to where it stood before the pandemic," said King.
Millions of Americans spent money from the historic stimulus packages enacted by Congress earlier this year to pay for food, back utilities and rent, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. One in four American workers relied on unemployment aid during the outbreak of the pandemic, a report by the Century Foundation, a think tank in New York found.
The federal government's spending worked, many experts claim. As a result of the bolstered aid, the government reported the number of people reported living in poverty decreased overall to 9.1%, down from 11.8% in 2019.
Shortly before the cessation of benefits, the Biden Administration approved a permanent SNAP increase in August – on average, about $11 more per person, per month.
But experts said more needs to be done to make up for the cutoff of other benefits.
More than 35 million people reported being food insecure this summer. Eleven million could not afford to eat at least once in the last week, according to an August survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The disparities are higher among Black and Latino Americans, who were more than twice as likely as white adults to report there wasn't enough to eat, an analysis by the Center for Budget and Priorities found.
While the current unemployment rate is at 5.2% — almost 10 percentage points lower compared with the historic rate of 14.2% in April 2020— the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits moved up last week to 332,000 as pandemic assistance expired.
The recovery continues to be uneven across racial lines. Black workers had August’s highest unemployment rate, at 8.8%, followed by Latino workers at 6.4%,according to a report by Brookings Institute, a research group in Washington, D.C.
"The recovery is inequitable," said Wendoly Marte, director of economic justice at Community Change Action, a national civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C. "Unfortunately, food insecurity was already rampant, and unemployment is still very high, especially for Black women."
One of the biggest challenges is the lack of continuity of assistance programs, even when the evidence shows increased spending on federal benefits keeps millions from growing hungrier and falling further into poverty, said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
"The problem with America is that we do a lot of stopping and starting," said Waxman.
Meanwhile, a debate continues in Congress over what will make it into President Joe Biden's $3.5 trillion budget for the 2022 fiscal year— including over proposals for free prekindergarten and a permanent expansion to the Child Tax Credit, which would slash child poverty by 40%.
Waxman called the budget a pivotal moment.
"Those investments did have a big role in what would have been catastrophic," said Waxman. "The question is, will we sustain it?"
Food banks bracing for new clients after food stamps cut
Even with the temporary increase in federal assistance, many low-income Americans have counted on food banks for nearly two years to get them through the pandemic and ensuring economic slowdown.
Allie Rovinsky, 24, of Dekalb, Illinois said there was no way her family could have survived on her $83 monthly SNAP benefit.
After her husband's business went under during the pandemic and she lost her job, the pair were homeless and unable to buy food.
Rovinsky said she and her husband went to their local Salvation Army food bank week after week.
"It's how we were able to get a meal together," she said.
In 2020, the Salvation Army served a record number of 30 million people and provided 225 million meals.
Now, many of the charity's leaders reported they are worried about meeting skyrocketing demand. The Salvation Army estimates it will need an additional $175 million to help people pay utilities, rent and food to keep Americans in their homes this year.
Back in West Virginia, Phillips said she's lucky if she can now qualify for $350 in SNAP benefits. After crunching the numbers, she can only spend a total of about $1.26 on each meal for both her and her son.
"Tell me, how can you get a balanced meal for $1.26?" she said.
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent @RominaAdi on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: SNAP: Millions of Americans continue to file for food stamps