Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Pantries brace for impact of food benefit cuts
Wisconsin food pantries are readying for an influx of visitors seeking assistance if a rule change to the federal food assistance program proposed goes into effect.
The Trump administration is proposing to change qualification rules for the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program that could cause tens of thousands of Wisconsinites to lose their benefits, according to estimates from the state Department of Health Services.
Pantry operators say their communities have pulled through that need has risen in the past, and that support is likely to repeat itself should the change go into effect.
But it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t sting for the people they serve.
“It’s certainly going to hurt every one of our families here, and families that may be just on the line of making it,” said Kathy Rubino, director of the food pantry at The Neighbors’ Place community center in Wausau, which serves 800 to 1,000 families per month. “It’s going to be devastating.”
USA TODAY Network-Wisconsin newspapers this month are helping to raise $1 million to help feed hungry people in Wisconsin. The campaign will take place throughout October, which is hunger awareness month.
Since 2010, Stock the Shelves has raised nearly $5 million for food pantries in northeast and central Wisconsin. The program is being expanded this year to also include readers of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed the change to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), which in Wisconsin is called FoodShare, in July. A public comment period ended last month.
About 644,000 Wisconsin residents received FoodShare benefits in 2018. In Wisconsin, a person who qualifies for other governmental assistance programs can qualify for food benefits without performing additional income and asset tests.
The proposal would end that automatic qualification, instead requiring reviews of their income and assets to ensure they fall within the level needed to receive food stamps.
Ross Anderson, chapter lieutenant at the Oshkosh Salvation Army chapter expects a surge in visitors to its pantry and meal programs if the federal rules change.
Any time it looks as though benefits could be cut, the daily meal program and food pantry see an uptick in visitors, and low-income families who are already struggling may reach out for extra resources just in case, he said.
The Oshkosh meal program serves thousands of free breakfast and lunch
meals a year, and it’s been able to keep up with demand well, Anderson said.
“When we see benefit cuts to individuals that are already hurting, that obviously worries a nonprofit because we’re trying to serve as many people as best we can,” Anderson said.
At the St. Joseph Food Program in Menasha, executive director Monica Clare said there’s been a slight uptick in visitors to their pantry in the last few months but she is unsure whether it’s related to the possible tightening of benefit rules.
St. Joe’s serves 650 to 700 families weekly. That’s well under the 1,000-plus families the program served during the Great Recession in 2008, so there’s be room to grow if need be, she said.
“I don’t want to say ‘It’ll be fine,’ I’m just saying it’s happened before and the community comes together and meets the need,” Clare said.
In Wausau, Rubino and representatives of other organizations that make up the Marathon County Hunger Coalition will meet soon to discuss how to handle an influx of visitors should the rule go into effect. They had a similar meeting earlier this year when the federal government shut down, temporarily putting the SNAP program in jeopardy.
On Sept. 23, state Attorney General Josh Kaul and 23 other attorney generals from across the nation sent a letter to the Agriculture Department urging it to not implement the new rule.
“The Department does not present any facts that justify the need to dramatically decrease participation in SNAP by households that are, by any measure, low income and in needs of nutrition assistance,” the letter states.
The Department of Agriculture has not yet set a date for a decision on whether to advance the rule.