Despite recent government shutdowns and another looming in two weeks, local charities are saying they are in good shape to handle the increased need.
While Union County has few federal employees, more than 1,150 households in Union County depend on the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
SNAP is intended to help people with low-incomes purchase specific healthy and nutritious grocery items at participating stores. The assistance is issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through Job and Family Services. Eligibility, determined by the agency, is based on federal guidelines including income, resources and household size. Sue Ware, director of Union County Human Services, said the federal government provides benefits for 1,387 Union County adults and 1,007 local chidren.
When USDA’s funding expired on Dec. 21, 2018, SNAP benefits for January were fully funded. Additionally, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture used a budget provision to provide benefits for February. The provision, however, required that the money be issued to the recipients before Jan. 20. In Ohio, SNAP participants received their benefits on Jan. 16.
“One of our big concerns was, would people really know this was for February and plan appropriately,” said Ware.
According to a release from USDA, the agency also ensured the other major nutrition assistance programs have sufficient funding to continue operations into February. The child nutrition programs, including school meals and after-school programs have funding available to continue operations through March. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) has prior year funding which USDA provided to states for February benefits. Programs can also use grant funding, awarded prior to the shutdowns, to provide services.
She said that even if they were aware the added benefits were for February, many people on assistance are not good at planning for future needs.
Ware and other officials met Wednesday to discuss the impact of the shutdown on the community and what another shutdown could mean for SNAP participants. She said food pantries are also aware of and prepared for the potential increase in demand due to the early benefits release.
“They felt pretty confident if folks were running out of food in the end of February, they would be OK helping people,” Ware said.
County Administrator Tim Hansley, who also attended the meeting, said Union County is “in better shape than most counties in the state.”
“We are somewhat unique in Union County, because this is such a generous, giving community,” Hansley said.
He said that while the food panties and assistance agencies are doing well now, “if we start getting a big drawdown, the community will respond.”
Officials said the government is working again, but acknowledged there could be another shutdown before the next round of benefits would be available for counties and states to provide to recipients.
“As soon as they (federal and state officials) have a plan, a commitment, they will be giving us that information,” Ware said. “Counties just don’t know what’s happening.”
Hansley said there is “some concern about missing school three days” because for some children, the school lunch is their most nutritious meal of the day. He said many students in need are also given a meal bag to take home on the weekend.
Officials said that during their meeting, it was brought up that Union County’s prosperity could draw people from outside the community looking for help.
“We kind of decided that was OK,” Hansley said. “It is really state and federal dollars anyway.”
Officials said the situation has given many local agencies and food pantries a chance to work and communicate together. Ware said the shutdown has also reinforced the need for agencies to teach money management and to help recipients maximize their benefits. She said officials are encouraging families to use local food pantries when they can, then use the SNAP benefits to fill in around what they cannot get from the local food resources.
Hansley said officials are also trying to be creative. He said many programs come with requirements, but often there is some room to maneuver.
“They are trying to use some common sense and sure needs are being met,” Hansley said. “These are people who are hungry. Let’s figure out how to get food on their table.”
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