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REGIONAL- More than 20,000 St. Louis County participants in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and more than 350,000 participants statewide, will see their food budgets …
REGIONAL- More than 20,000 St. Louis County participants in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and more than 350,000 participants statewide, will see their food budgets take a hit in April with the end of emergency SNAP benefits instituted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Temporary emergency benefits enacted in March 2020 helped Minnesotans with low incomes buy food during the pandemic, providing a minimum additional benefit of $95 a month on up to hundreds of dollars, depending on family size. A recently approved federal spending bill calls for emergency SNAP benefits to expire in February. Most recipients will receive their final emergency assistance in March. SNAP benefits will return to regular amounts in April.
“It’s been three years that they’ve had it every single month as part of their budget,” said Dusty Letica, director of the St. Louis County Economic Services and Supports Division. “We have roughly over 20,000 individuals in St. Louis County alone that are on SNAP that will be affected by this change. That’s ten percent of the entire population of the county. It’s going to be a significant decrease for some households.”
“That extra support during the pandemic was a welcome relief for people who count on SNAP,” said Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead. “We know that many Minnesotans still struggle to put food on the table. Without the additional federal benefits, that will become even more difficult.”
The base income qualification for SNAP benefits is 130 percent of poverty level, and program participation has grown throughout the pandemic, Letica said. In 2020, the average number of St. Louis County SNAP recipients per month was 13,541. That number grew to 17,717 in 2021, 19,496 in 2022, and stands at 20,297 currently.
While the pandemic has waned, food security continues to be a problem for many Minnesotans, especially with the escalating cost of groceries. Letica said his staff is referring clients to area food shelves, but they are already being greatly taxed by the current conditions. Second Harvest, a regional food bank, has reported that its partners have reported a 30-percent increase in visitation.
Letica emphasized that only the additional emergency SNAP payments are going away.
“Individuals should know that the regular SNAP program will stay the same, as long as they remain eligible,” he said.
Changes in income affect SNAP eligibility, and one group often overlooked that could see changes are Social Security recipients. Letica noted that because of last year’s inflation rate, Social Security had an 8.7 percent cost-of-living adjustment, a significant increase that could have an impact on SNAP benefits that Social Security recipients may be receiving.
The end of the emergency SNAP benefits isn’t only a loss to recipients, Letica said. It will also impact retail food sellers in the county. Together, the SNAP and emergency SNAP programs pumped $50,646,000 into the St. Louis County economy in 2022. That’s close to double the $27,763,000 what was distributed in 2020. Statewide, since March 2020, $1.3 billion in emergency SNAP benefits have gone to more than 350,000 Minnesota households.
And as extra pandemic benefits disappear, from food aid to medical assistance, Letica also has concerns for his staff, who have to implement the changes and will undoubtedly be the focus of much angst from those affected by federal decisions made in Washington, D.C.
“This next year will be the most challenging in my 16 years at the county for staff,” he said. “Retention and well-being is going to be of utmost importance for me because they’re probably going to be receiving some unpleasant phone calls from individuals who are significantly impacted and frustrated, and rightfully so. How do we handle those and not take them personally, and then continue on with our jobs and trying to help the next person? It’s certainly going to be challenging.”
Governor Tim Walz’s budget proposal includes several proposals to help increase food security for Minnesotans, improving food distribution and access for Tribal nations and families across the state. Both bodies of the Minnesota Legislature have approved an additional $5 million for the Minnesota Food Shelf Program, and that bill now goes to Governor Walz for action.
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