Officials worry halt to pandemic related food benefits will hurt elderly, families

Feb. 26—Living on a fixed income, Gaylene Macuska, 73, does her best to stretch her monthly food budget, favoring pasta and ready-to-eat meals.

The $261 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits she receives each month helped ensure she had enough to eat. She worries what will happen starting next month, when her benefit will be cut by at least $95, possibly more.

"It's hard to find any bargains out there," she said. "I'll probably have to go back to the food bank, which I have not done in five years."

The South Scranton woman is among more than 40 million SNAP beneficiaries nationwide, including about 1.9 million in Pennsylvania, who will see their monthly stipends slashed when a pandemic-related boost to benefits ends March 1.

The cuts stem from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023, signed into law in December. All SNAP households nationwide will lose at least $95, with some seeing reductions of $250 or more, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan research and policy institute.

In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Human Services estimates the average loss will be about $181.

Some senior citizens and disabled people who receive Social Security income will also see their pre-pandemic level benefit, largely based on family size and income, reduced because of the 8.7% cost of living increase they received in January. DHS estimates the average loss at $40 a month in Pennsylvania.

SNAP recipients received the additional funding since spring 2020 to help offset financial hardships the pandemic caused. Local social service providers say they understand the boost was meant to be temporary, but the cuts come at a time when families are already struggling to meet basic needs because of skyrocketing food, utility and housing costs.

"It's a huge concern," said Jessica Wallo, director of community services for United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania in Scranton. "When you add in everything that it takes to be able to stay in a warm, affordable and safe home, there's nothing left at the end of the month ... There's a real fear of how are we going to be able to meet this basic need for food."

Meghan Loftus, president and CEO of Friends of the Poor in Scranton, is particularly concerned for the elderly and others living on a fixed income.

"Any adjustments that were made to Social Security aren't enough to offset inflation," Loftus said. "There are some people getting $200 and some dollars a month that might start getting $40 or $30 a month."

The loss is expected to increase the already high demand for services, further straining nonprofit organizations also dealing with higher food costs.

UNC's food bank served nearly 900 families in January. Last year, it served 1,054 families for January, February and March, Wallo said.

"We served just about the same amount in one month of 2023 that we served in a quarter of last year," Wallo said.

Monthly, Friends of the Poor now serves an average of 6,282 people, up from an average of 4,141 in fiscal year 2022, Loftus said. The monthly cost of food, meanwhile, increased to an average $6,533, up from $3,934.

The Commission on Economic Opportunity's Weinberg Northeast Regional Food Bank served an average of 5,318 families a week in 2022, compared to an average of 4,881 in 2021, said Gretchen Hunt, director of nutrition services for CEO.

It's going to get more challenging, Loftus said, noting that national emergency food organizations predict food banks will see a 30% increase in requests for assistance.

Macuska expects to be among those seeking help. She doesn't know yet how much her benefits will be reduced, but expects it to be about $100.

She does not begrudge the government, but the cuts come at a tough time. She's already struggling to pay rent and utilities on the roughly $990 a month she receives from Social Security and a small pension.

"I understand both sides. It costs a lot of money for the state," she said. "I wish it was not ending because the prices are rising so much."

Officials say they're hopeful other programs, including the upcoming farmer's market voucher program offered by the state Department of Agriculture, will help blunt the impact.

Agencies also are reminding clients to report any significant changes in their financial conditions that could affect their benefits, such as increased housing, child care, adult care or medical costs.

Officials say it's unlikely any additional federal funding is coming, so they have to look to other community funding sources and donations.

Gary Drapek, president and CEO of the United Way of Lackawanna and Wayne counties, encourages food banks to seek funding from area charitable foundations that support a wide range of community projects, including the Scranton Area Community Foundation and Moses Taylor Foundation.

Laura Ducceschi, president and CEO of the Scranton Area Community Foundation, said it set aside $100,000 specifically to fund food insecurity. Groups can also seek a share of an additional $400,000 in funding available for various other types of community projects.

Danielle Breslin, president and CEO of the Moses Taylor Foundation, said the foundation's board understands the significant impact the loss of the emergency assistance will have.

"I anticipate that this will be something that we will take a good hard look at to determine how we can best support the nonprofits in the community that are dealing with the repercussions of this loss of funding," she said.

While the organizations face challenges, Drapek and other officials say they're confident they will be able to meet the community's needs.

"It's been a rough couple of years with COVID, but I tend to be somewhat optimistic," Drapek said. "I think we are going to see the community rally like we always have."

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