The uncertainty over food stamp benefits during the government shutdown has cleared up — and the news is not good for Americans relying on them. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments during the shutdown are off schedule. NPR reported that payments for February are coming through already — weeks ahead of time — and that is not good news.
Getting money earlier may not sound so bad, but it comes coupled with the news that there's no guarantee when the next payment will be. March's payment is not guaranteed unless the shutdown ends and the government reopens in time. The USDA program will run out of funding this weekend.
Even the February payments were a stretch, something the government employees who oversee the program worked out through technicalities, given that the department's funding ran out on Dec. 21 like many other government agencies.
"Our motto here at USDA has been to 'Do Right and Feed Everyone,'" Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement when the fix was found. "With this solution, we’ve got the 'Feed Everyone' part handled. And I believe that the plan we’ve constructed takes care of the 'Do Right' part as well."
But that was for the February payment. There likely won't be another Hail Mary for March. "If the shutdown continues, we all have questions about what will happen in March and potential months beyond that," Jamie Palagi, the administrator of the Human & Community Services division of Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, told NPR.
Food pantries around the country are ready to step in and fill the void, if necessary. Kathleen Kennedy of Bishop Sullivan Center in Kansas City told The Kansas City Star that they would need more staff and donations to make it through. "Everyone is operating on a wing and a prayer right now," she told the paper. "You can’t do what you need to do without eating. We are day to day, but we will do what we need to do to help families."
A potential further complication is that some grocery stores, about 2,500, are unable to accept SNAP payments because their licenses lapsed during the shutdown. The USDA told PBS Newshour that they account for less than 1 percent of grocery stores nationwide, but for those affected — especially the owners of small businesses — it's a huge problem. It also applies to all new stores that have opened after the shutdown began.
"Because of an argument about a wall, I have to look people in the eyes every day and tell them they can't pay for their food, for their children's food," Sarah Jackson, a grocery store employee in Arkansas told PBS.
SNAP is not the only federal program to suffer under the shutdown. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program for seniors, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the program that distributes food on Native American reservations have all stopped receiving federal money.
With no end in sight, families will need to plan carefully to make it through February — let alone March.