Even though the state is helping out more, New Jersey is still seeing the “hunger cliff” of families who can’t afford to buy basic food.
Starting in March, more people went to the state’s food pantries for help. This is because the end of federal emergency SNAP benefits made food prices go up even more, making some groceries too expensive for more people to buy.
Leaders of food pantries in Morris, Passaic, and Somerset counties said that the number of people asking for help with food went up by up to 20% after the boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) because of the pandemic ended at the end of February.
The increase in applicants was New Jersey’s version of a “hunger cliff,” which was expected to happen across the country after the federal government said it would end an emergency payment that many people had used to help pay their food bills during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In New Jersey, the effects were lessened by a new state law that raised the lowest SNAP benefit for a family to $95 a month.
But people who work to fight hunger thought that the extra state benefit wouldn’t make up for the full loss of federal money, so more people would turn to food pantries for things they could no longer buy.
Clients in Difficulty
Carolyn Lake, the executive head of the Interfaith Food Pantry Network of Morris County, said, “We hear from a lot of clients that even $95 doesn’t go very far.”We had one person whose monthly benefit went from $295 to $115, which made a big difference at the grocery shop.
“The cut is really making it hard for them to put enough food on the table without asking us for help.”Lake said that the end of the government benefit made the number of visits to her organization’s two food pantries in Morris Plains and Morristown go up by 3% from February to March, to 3,116.
During the same time period, the amount of food given out went up by 4% to about 173,000 pounds, and since January, the number of new clients has gone up by 17%. The numbers also show how much demand there is at 31 smaller distributors like food pantries and senior housing units that the group supplies.
“A reduction in SNAP, on top of the high cost of food, is making it harder for low-income families to put food on the table, and organizations like ours are spending more on food, staying open longer, and paying more for transportation to make up the difference,” said Lake.
The same thing happened in Somerset County, where the number of client visits went up from about 2,000 in February to over 2,300 in March after the emergency SNAP benefit stopped, according to Steve Katz, the head of the Food Bank Network of Somerset County.
A New Record
Katz said that the pantry’s number of new clients broke records in February and March, going from 156 in January to 223 in March.
Katz said, “If I had to pick one thing, it would be the end of emergency SNAP benefits.” He said that rising food prices were not likely to be the reason for the recent rise in demand because prices have been stable for the last few months, even though they are still high.
For now, the increased demand can be met because the pantry can buy more food at wholesale prices and has enough room in the freezer and refrigerator to store more food. But, he said, the supply might not be able to meet the demand in the long run. “Right now we’re good, but I don’t know how long that will last if the numbers keep going up like this.”
Anti-hunger advocates said that the state’s new monthly minimum of $95 per household in SNAP payments has made the loss of federal benefits easier, but as expected, it has not removed the “hunger cliff” in New Jersey.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), a big supporter of the new state minimum, said it wouldn’t fully make up for the loss of federal money, but it would lessen the effect.
“When the government aid ran out, we knew there would be a lot more people in need. We helped out by giving the most food aid in the country, which is more than four times the government minimum,” he said in a statement. “It’s hard for states to make up for 100% of the loss in federal support for SNAP, but we’ve done more than any other state.”
Big Impact Already
Food banks, which give food to stores and soup kitchens and are the center of the emergency food network, are also seeing a rise in demand.
The Food Bank of South Jersey, which serves four counties, gave out 18% more food in the first three months of 2023 than it did in the same time period the year before. The bank’s CEO, Fred Wasiak, said that the amount of food given out in March was 6% higher than in March 2022.
Out of about 200 partner agencies, 60% said that demand went up in March, and 40% said that the loss of SNAP payments was to blame.
Wasiak said in a statement, “Even in this short amount of time, we can see the effects of the end of emergency allotments for SNAP benefits.”
Lisa Pitz, who runs an advocacy group called Hunger Free New Jersey, said that since the government payments stopped, some pantries have seen a “huge” rise in demand, while for others it has been “incremental.”
But the effects have only been felt for a little over a month. She said they may get worse in the coming months, especially in the summer when kids can’t get school meals.
“It’s different, but all the emergency food providers I’ve talked to say they’ve seen an increase,” she said.
She said that some of the 785,000 people in New Jersey who get the federal benefit were getting $281 a month. If the state minimum hadn’t been raised to $95, those people could have gone down to the federal minimum of $23. This amount is still much less than the government benefit that was lost, but Pitz said it is at least more than $23.
The CEO of the food pantry, Jessica Padilla Gonzalez, said that by the end of March, CUMAC had helped a record-high 5,000 households in Paterson, up from about 4,000 a month earlier.