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Food-stamp recipients face long wait for their next payment

Facts about the food stamp program

Millions of low-income households who got their February food stamps early because of the partial government shutdown now face a new concern: Stretching out those benefits until their next payment.

The challenge of making those Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits last days or even weeks longer than usual has food bank and pantry staffers gearing up for a surge in demand by people running low on funds. In Hamilton County, Ohio, for instance, Freestore Foodbank, which supports 450 pantries, is stocking up on supplies as families try to make their latest payment last until March, CEO Kurt Reiber told CBS affiliate WKRC

"Monetary donations go the furthest," he said. "One dollar provides the equivalent of three meals."

Long gap between payments

Some 15 million low-income households -- roughly 90 percent of those that get federal food assistance -- will have to make their February SNAP payment last at least 40 days, according to a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. More than 4 million households could experience a gap of more than 50 days in benefits, the left-leaning think tank also estimated. 

SNAP eligibility is based on several factors, including the federal poverty line for gross income, or income before taxes. For a family of three, the poverty line used to calculate SNAP benefits in federal fiscal year 2019 is $1,732 a month. So, 130 percent of the poverty line for a three-person family amounts to $2,252 a month, or about $27,000 a year. 

The average monthly SNAP benefit for a single person is $134, while for a family of four it amounts to $465.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was able to pay SNAP recipients early using already approved funding. States will be able to release March payments as usual under the agreement to fund government for three weeks, according to the USDA. Meanwhile, the White House and Congress will try to resolve the dispute over President Donald Trump's demand for a southern border wall.

Trump skeptical lawmakers will reach deal to avert 2nd shutdown

The USDA is working on ways to make sure poor families have uninterrupted access to nutrition assistance programs including SNAP, according to the agency. It is also considering granting waivers to again move up payment, and expects to issue guidance for state agencies in the near future. 

"It's a big relief that the shutdown is over. SNAP is now assured at a minimum through the end of March," Dottie Rosenbaum, a SNAP expert at CPBB, told CBS MoneyWatch. Nonetheless, action the administration took during the shutdown "to protect people has now created this other issue."

A longer period between SNAP payments could strain community-based food programs already under pressure in "so many neighborhoods," Rosenbaum said. 

Some 42 million Americans received SNAP benefits in 2017. More than 68 percent of participants were in families with children, and 44 percent were in families with working adults, according to CBPP estimates. 

Food insecurity remains high

Food-stamp recipients already struggle with their grocery budgets, according to a study last year from the Urban Institute. SNAP's per-meal benefit doesn't cover the cost of a "low-income meal" in 99 percent of U.S. counties and the District of Columbia, the study found. It calculated the average cost for Americans at $2.36 per meal, 27 percent higher than the maximum SNAP per-meal benefit of $1.86. 

Even before the shutdown, and despite the economic recovery, food insecurity across the country was worse than before the financial crisis more than a decade ago. About 12 percent of Americans were deemed "food insecure" in 2017, up from 11.1 percent in 2007.  That represents about 15 million households, according to USDA data released last year. 

"Our encouragement to those families is to hold onto your benefits as long as you can," Tina Brohlin, a spokeswoman for the High Plains Food Bank, told CBS affiliate KDFA in Amarillo, Texas. "Be very prudent in your budgeting and meal planning, so that you can stretch your SNAP benefits through the month of February and possibly into March."