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SNAP benefits will drop for millions of Americans as pandemic aid winds down

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Some 16 million American households are seeing a sharp cut in how much they can spend on food this month. Temporary pandemic assistance came to an end in February, which means benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, are dropping by about $90 a month for individuals and $250 or more for families. The cut comes as food prices in the U.S. continue to rise, and without the extra help, many people will go hungry.

TERESA CALDAREZ: Unfortunately, I have known hunger. I'm pretty familiar with hunger. And it's not a good feeling, you know?

SUMMERS: That's Teresa Caldarez. She's 63 and lives in Colorado Springs. Caldarez says the extra SNAP benefits allowed her to eat right for the first time in many years. Before that...

CALDAREZ: I'd run out of money pretty much toward the middle of the month.

SUMMERS: Caldarez has been disabled for many years.

CALDAREZ: I have chronic pain. I have arthritis, fibromyalgia and degenerative disc disease, so I'm just not able to work. And I was getting about $20 a month, and the extra amount that I ended up getting was about 280 a month. And that helped me tremendously. I could eat more like when I felt like I needed to eat.

SUMMERS: And she's noticed a big difference in her overall health.

CALDAREZ: You know, I feel better. I have a little more energy. My nails look better. They were real split, cracked and dried. And I noticed having eaten fresh vegetables and meats, you know, they look a lot better. They're not pretty, but they're healthier. And I think your nails say a lot about what your health is like.

SUMMERS: Even leading up to the cut in her SNAP benefits this month, Caldarez was struggling under the rising cost of living.

CALDAREZ: When the rent and the inflation went up, it really hurt. You know, buying a gallon of milk - a lot of people don't really give it another thought, but there are lots of us out here who can't buy a gallon of milk when we need it. And so I'm just going to have to go back to not eating very much, about a meal a day.

SUMMERS: But even while facing her own struggles, Caldarez says she's more worried about how some other families will fare with fewer SNAP benefits.

CALDAREZ: I worry about, you know, mothers and children. And the poverty is impacting them so much more than people realize.

SUMMERS: And she's right to worry if you ask a number of experts, including pediatrician Megan Sandel.

MEGAN SANDEL: Think about what SNAP is. It's the largest anti-hunger program in the United States. It's an evidence-based tool for ensuring families put food on the table.

SUMMERS: She's co-director of the Boston Medical Center's Grow Clinic, which focuses on treating malnutrition issues in kids.

SANDEL: Let me just translate to you kind of who's a typical family that I see. They're working sometimes two jobs. They have this, you know, young child that's not growing the way you would expect on the growth curve. And the mom will break down in tears and say, I just got my rent bill; landlord is increasing it; I can't keep up. And now I know that there's going to be one less tool in the toolbox to try and help this kid grow and get back on the growth curve.

SUMMERS: What makes children, young people, particularly vulnerable in moments such as this?

SANDEL: You know, you think about kind of what is really important around growth. In the first three years of life, you are in the most rapid growth period in terms of brain and body. And so when you're missing out on key nutrition, it's hard to catch up. It literally can be situations where we get to kids late and they're starting to struggle in school or they're not reading on time or other things.

And so we've seen this before. Our research showed that during the Great Recession in 2008, 2009, when there was a boost, they were able to see a benefit. And then when that boost was reduced, we saw kids stop growing, being in fair to poor health and their caregivers being in fair to poor health. So this is really a family issue.

SUMMERS: What types of long-term effects can hunger have on children as they grow?

SANDEL: So I like to think about it in three ways. I think we know that there are physical health implications. You're not able to fight off viruses as well. You're not going to be able to do as well with your immune system. And we also know that there can be developmental effects, right? You're not walking on time. You're not running on time. You're not learning to read on time. And then I think mostly, there are huge mental health effects both for, again, kids and their parents - anxiety, depression, lost productivity at work, lost productivity in school.

And so I think the good news is there's a solution, right? We know that SNAP needs to cover the cost of a healthy diet. It doesn't really do that now, and it's not going to do it if you end up rolling it back further. But Congress is going to take up the Farm Bill. There are ways in which you could really start to see covering the real cost of food, and we could see the benefits of that over the next generations.

SUMMERS: I wonder, what do you recommend for parents and other caregivers who might be really struggling and be harmed acutely by these latest cuts, who are being asked, in effect, to do more with a lot less?

SANDEL: Yeah. It is really an ecosystem approach. I work at Boston Medical Center, and we partner with our Greater Boston Food Bank. We are able to provide emergency food. We can lean in ourselves. It really is that we need to partner with policymakers on the federal and the state level to really bring additional resources. So families should know there are great safety net hospitals and great safety net community health centers and food banks out there. But we really need to focus not just on the short-term solution but the long-term solutions to make sure families aren't choosing between rent, medicine and food.

SUMMERS: If you could enact any law or program or structure right now that would have a meaningful impact on fighting child hunger, where would you begin?

SANDEL: You know, the Farm Bill is a huge, huge bill that is considered every five years. And there is a real opportunity for Congress to strengthen and improve SNAP; not just to roll it back, but to actually look at it as this evidence-based solution to reducing food insecurity and promoting health. And the way you do that is actually to boost SNAP benefits so they reflect the real cost of a healthy diet across the country. My counseling to families to have fruits and vegetables and, you know, dairy and eggs are meaningless if their actual, you know, ability to purchase them is reduced. And so there are ways in which we could actually use the pandemic-era boost as an example of how we improve the program and really create health equity for children and adults across the country.

SUMMERS: Dr. Megan Sandel, co-director of the Boston Medical Center's Grow Clinic. Thank you so much.

SANDEL: Thanks, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.