The Wisconsin Policy Forum released a report Sept. 24 detailing the effects of the pandemic on FoodShare recipients. The data comes as food pantries face issues distributing food among populations vulnerable to the economic impacts of COVID-19.
The report detailed a 21% rise in FoodShare recipients since 2019. FoodShare, also known as SNAP and commonly referred to as food stamps, is the largest food program for low-income families across the state.
According to the report, these increases “reverse a trend of declining FoodShare recipients going back to 2013.” FoodShare added 83,600 recipients between March and April, the largest month-over-month increase since at least 2012.
While these numbers show that food insecurity during the pandemic has worsened, they do not show the entire impact.
In order to qualify for FoodShare in Wisconsin, a recipient must be living at or below the poverty level, which equates to an income of $26,200 a year for a family of four. While more people are living under these conditions than in recent years, there are still many food insecure people who do not meet the FoodShare requirements.
The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), funded through the USDA, requires an individual to be at or below 300 percent of the poverty level. This requirement was loosened from 185% of the poverty level in response to the pandemic.
“We plan to adjust it back down when the volume of food begins to diminish and the demand diminishes,” explained Kitty Kocol, Wisconsin’s TEFAP Grant Administrator. “But right now we’re opening this as wide as we can to move this food as quickly as we can to families and households.”
In February and April, TEFAP saw increases in both operating and food budgets, allowing the income requirement to be relaxed. The amount of food available for distribution grew to 36 million pounds. Beyond these increases, the USDA has also begun distribution of “Coronavirus Pandemic Assistance Program” farm-to-family food boxes.
Still, this food allowance does not completely mitigate food insecurity issues.
“A lot of the food pantries that distribute TEFAP, many of them are also getting these boxes. So there’s a tremendous amount of food out there right now, but it’s very, very, very, very challenging to distribute it,” said Kocol.
During the pandemic, many food pantries have moved outside, begun curbside pick-ups or implemented other changes in operations to continue food distribution.
The River Food Pantry, the largest food pantry in Dane County, expanded their mobile-lunch program for children to run Monday through Saturday during the pandemic. The program previously was available on Saturdays and non-school days.
“Especially in the spring and over the summer, when there wasn’t always food available through the school district, we wanted to make sure that kids still had lunches,” said Helen Osborn-Senatus, Program Manager at The River Food Pantry. “Now, MMSD is providing breakfast and lunches for pick up once a week at many locations around town which is really helpful, but we wanted to keep lunch running as often as it is just to ensure that people can always count on that meal every day.
Programs are considering the populations they serve as they deal with public health challenges. According to Kocol, the food insecure population is disproportionately affected by chronic, underlying health conditions and disabilities, and has a high proportion of seniors. All of these population characteristics are risk factors of COVID-19. Many food pantry volunteers are also seniors.
“We have a fragile population being served by an at-risk population, because all these populations are more at risk for COVID illness and, frankly, mortality,” said Kocol.
As winter approaches, pantries are preparing to make more changes.
“We did not contemplate back in March that we would still be in this position,” said Kocol. “So right now we’re in the process of surveying our pantries to find out who can do what in terms of continuing to stay outdoors.”
Pantries also struggled to put together plans as the pandemic developed, which caused some of the TEFAP food pantries to close. The River Food Pantry was able to continue distributing food without a change in schedule.
“Community members and agencies have also just stepped up,” said Osborn-Senatus. “We’ve had meals donated from several different restaurants to include in our mobile lunch program. So luckily a lot of community consciousness, which is just a great partnership for us to be a part of because then it helps us support our community in more ways.”
Because the Wisconsin Policy Forum report predicts even higher numbers of FoodShare recipients in the future, this community support may become even more important.
Kocol urged people struggling with food insecurity to try to access the benefits they are entitled to.
“We really encourage people if they have a need to set [reluctance] aside. So many folks are in need right now, many people are in the same boat,” said Kocol.
state news writer