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AUGUST 18, 2021

Why does food insecurity persist despite pandemic-related expansions to benefits?


The federal government spent record-breaking amounts on nutritional assistance since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing SNAP benefits and launching Pandemic EBT (P-EBT). These changes made a significant difference in the lives of recipients--Providers users who reported receiving new or expanded benefits experienced lower levels of food and economic security. However, food insecurity has remained at high levels throughout the pandemic. In a given month, 41% of Providers users reported eating less, 32% reported skipping meals, and 29% reported visiting a food pantry. 


We’ve been listening to the millions of families who use Providers and here’s what we’ve learned about the persistence of food insecurity. 

Families were struggling before recent food aid expansions

I sure like getting the full amount. It really helped but I still ran out before it was time for more. But I did really like having the fresh stuff. It is almost impossible to eat healthy when you know there is not enough for the whole month.

Prior to March 2020, 37% of Providers users said their benefits “always” ran out before the end of the month. Another 28% said their benefits ran out “most of the time”. Unfortunately, many users still ran out of benefits always or most of the time a year and a half into the pandemic. In August 2021, 29% Providers users reported that over the past 6 months their benefits ran out “always”; another 28% said their benefits ran out most of the time. Any reduction in hunger during this devastating economic crisis is significant, but hunger persists.

In fact, over the past 6 months, 89% of Providers users reported spending additional money beyond SNAP, WIC, and P-EBT on food each month. 53% reported spending $100 or more a month on food beyond benefits.

The pandemic changed families needs significantly

The extra amount definitely helped, as gas and food prices have seen an increase, or an interrupted supply.

Not only were food benefits generally insufficient to cover a household’s dietary needs--before and after expansions to SNAP and the advent of P-EBT--but the pandemic raised the cost to feed a family. 76% of Providers users reported that they were spending more to feed their households than in previous years because food prices were higher. With school and daycare closures, children were home for more meals. 44% of Providers users reported spending more on food because their children were home more of the time. 31% said they spent more on food because they bought in bulk to minimize trips to the grocery store.

As a result, families ate fewer healthy and fresh foods, and had fewer choices in what they ate. 29% of Providers users reported having to buy less healthy foods (like fresh produce); 24% said they buy more packaged foods; and 12% said they rely on food pantries so they don’t get to choose what they eat, since the pandemic started.

What would additional SNAP benefits mean to families?

In June 2021, we asked users “If your SNAP benefits increased by $50 per person in your household, how would that change how you eat or shop for groceries each month?”

  1. Additional SNAP benefits would allow them to eat more nutritious and filling meals.

  2. They are currently skipping meals to make it through the month.

  3. More SNAP benefits would mean enough resources for the rest of the family budget.

  4. They’re unable to maintain the recommended diets for their health conditions.

  5. More SNAP benefits would help them adjust to other difficult and varied circumstances, like living in areas with few grocery store options or lacking transportation.

Aid to families’ has been unpredictable

It’s been okay but [payments] being split up has been a hassle for me and my kids I prefer to have gotten it all on one day because I can buy all my food at once and wouldn’t have to worry about running out

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, all states began to issue emergency allotments of SNAP benefits in spring of 2020. At the beginning of 2021, households also began receiving a 15% increase in SNAP’s maximum benefit. Finally, a new program, Pandemic EBT (P-EBT), has provided food benefits to replace free or reduced-price meals children would have received at school.

These additional benefits had a positive impact on households--those who received P-EBT and/or extra SNAP deposits reported lower levels of food insecurity. However, they have also been unpredictable from the perspective of many beneficiaries. Payments suddenly hit EBT cards, sometimes with each part (regular SNAP amount, maximum allotment, and 15% increase) arriving separately. P-EBT payments arrived on new, separate cards in some places, and on existing SNAP EBT cards in others. P-EBT payments also arrived much later than the time period they were intended for--Georgia will begin issuing P-EBT payments meant for August-October 2020 this month, and Alaska has still not begun distributing benefits intended for the 2020-2021 school year. In addition, P-EBT benefit amounts were calculated differently by state, and even county, based on the number of days children were learning virtually, making it extremely difficult for households to check the accuracy of their payments or know the amount to expect.

30% of Providers users said they did not know what or how much they would get each month on their EBT cards. 17% said they would receive deposits on their EBT cards and not know what they were. 17% said they worried about having to pay back the extra deposits they received beyond their usual SNAP amount.
The unpredictability of payments had negative consequences. 38% of users said that not knowing how much to expect each month made it harder to plan ahead; 29% said they struggled to pay their other monthly bills; and 19% said they were afraid to spend extra benefits.

Found it harder to 
plan ahead

Struggled to pay other monthly bills

Were afraid to to spend 
extra benefits

What’s your plan for the end of the 15% boost in SNAP?

The 15% increase in SNAP’s maximum benefit is coming to an end next month, and will likely be an unpleasant surprise for many households. 59% of Providers users said they did not know that the 15% boost was ending in September, and another 7% didn’t know what the boost was.

I have no idea what to do.
Providers user - California

Well my options are limited... in order to live healthy i will pay less on my bills.
Providers user - Pittsburgh

Probably have to choose between eating and meds.
Providers user - Ohio

Thankfully, the U.S. The Department of Agriculture announced the first substantial change to the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for how SNAP benefits are calculated, this month. The new plan, which will go into effect in October 2021, will increase the average SNAP benefit by $36 (compared to pre-pandemic benefit levels).

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