Georgia families on food stamps set for fewer benefits as program ends

Credit: America's Second Harvest of Coastal Geo...

May 20, 2022
Key Points
  • Roughly 1 in 9 Georgians have benefitted from a $95 monthly bump in their monthly food-stamp checks during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Georgia is now in the final weeks of offering the extra food stamps as the program expires at the end of May.
  • Food banks that step in when families can't afford groceries provide more than 3 million meals to thousands of Georgians every week.

The Gist

Thousands of Georgia’s low-income families are set for a cut to their food stamps when a pandemic-era federal program ends later this month, heightening concerns that many children could go hungry once schools let out for summer break.

What’s Happening

Roughly 1 in 9 Georgians have benefitted from a $95 monthly bump in their monthly food-stamp checks since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in March 2020, according to the state Department of Human Services.

That extra amount represents a nearly 30% increase to the average $233 food-stamp recipients get each month. The boost makes a big difference in the ability of families to buy groceries, especially amid skyrocketing food increases from national inflation and supply-chain issues, advocates say.

“That [$95] may not sound like a lot to a lot of folks,” said Danah Craft, executive director of the Georgia Food Bank Association. “But it is a significant amount when you factor in all the increased costs that low-income families are experiencing.”

Georgia is now in the final weeks of offering the extra food stamps through the federal Pandemic-Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or P-SNAP. The program expires at the end of this month.

Why It Matters

The need for a $95 monthly food-stamp boost continues even as the pandemic’s economic toll on Georgia has greatly diminished since widespread school closures and unemployment in 2020.

Nearly 800,000 Georgians pocketed extra food-stamp benefits last month, according to state officials. Around 15% of Georgia’s population is on food stamps, marking the 9th-highest proportion among states, federal data shows.

Before the P-SNAP program and other recent benefit increases, food stamps typically weren’t enough to cover a full month of food for Georgia families, said Kelcie Silvio, a policy analyst at the nonprofit Voices for Georgia’s Children. The extra pandemic-era benefits helped families stretch their grocery budgets, she said.

“Food banks have reported an influx of usage at their sites whenever those dollars run out,” Silvio said.

Volunteers prepare meals at America's Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia in Savannah. (Credit: America's Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia)

As the P-SNAP program winds down, local food banks in Georgia are gearing up for a spike in requests for free meals at food pantries, churches and other nonprofits that have already seen food demand rise 30% compared to before the pandemic.

“We are preparing for what we think will be an increase in demand,” Craft said. “We’re watchful and concerned as we approach the summer.”

The state’s food banks provide more than 3 million meals to roughly 156,000 people every week, said Craft. That’s on top of millions of meals local schools serve low-income students through free and reduced-meals programs that don’t operate during summer.

In Georgia, around 73% of households receiving food stamps have children, Silvio noted. Federal data shows roughly 85% of children eligible for free or reduced school meals do not receive them during the summer months, largely due to transportation issues, limited locations or not knowing where to go, she said.

Summer Worries

Food pantries and churches that offer “grab-and-go” meal programs during the summer when kids are out of school need special approval from the federal and state government to let families take home extra breakfasts and lunches. Without that approval, food-bank patrons must eat their grab-and-go meals on-site.

“We can feed so many more children if we have those [approvals],” said Mary Jane Crouch, executive director of the Savannah-based nonprofit America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia. “That way we can ensure families have two meals a day instead of just one.”

Children receive take-home meals from America's Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia in Savannah. (Credit: America's Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia)

Georgia recently received approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to run these “grab-and-go” meal programs this summer, according to the state Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL). But it’s not clear when local food banks can start providing take-home meals.

“We will be working with providers to approve their use of these waivers when Covid-19 has directly affected their ability to serve meals in the usual congregate setting,” said DECAL Commissioner Amy Jacobs.

The timing uncertainty has sparked concern among advocates that schools could break for summer without grab-and-go meals immediately available, leaving fewer children with easy access to food during the start of summer.

“Many families don’t have transportation to be able to go somewhere more than once a day and eat a meal,” Crouch said. “Summer’s not a vacation for a lot of people.”

What’s Next?

Craft, of the food-banks association, said Georgia officials and food providers need to start looking at how to reduce demand for free meals and provide healthier food options.

Some guidance should come in an update to the nonprofit Feeding America’s “Hunger in America” report, which looks at the causes of food insecurity and the health impacts for families that buy or receive low-quality food. Last published in 2014, the report is set for an update sometime this fall, Craft said.

Meanwhile, food banks like Crouch’s Second Harvest are hustling to make sure kids stay fed this summer. She estimated Second Harvest provides around 32,000 breakfasts and lunches each week to families in Coastal Georgia.

That’s part of more than 28 million pounds of food Second Harvest prepares and distributes to around 137,000 people annually, she said.

“We can’t let children go hungry,” Crouch said. “That’s what we do.”

How to Help

Food banks across the state are accepting donations and volunteers to help run kitchens and distribute meals. Find where your food bank is located on the Georgia Food Bank Association’s website.

The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning runs a free meals program for children during summer months called “Happy Helpings.” Find where and when “Happy Helpings” sites operate in your community here.

Join The Conversation

What else do you want to know about food banks, food stamps and other issues in Georgia? Share your thoughts/tips by emailing [email protected].