It is almost the end of the month. The family’s plastic EBT card used for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food assistance is empty. SNAP is a Federally funded program used to help families that meet income and residency requirements criteria to have money to purchase food.
The high cost of food is putting extra strain on limited resources, and in February temporary emergency SNAP benefits will expire.
During the Covid public health emergency, many individuals receiving SNAP food assistance received temporary increased food benefits, and anyone without health insurance was eligible to receive Medicaid, regardless of their income or citizenship status.
Patrick Okoronkwo, Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) Benefits Division Chief, says SNAP has really lifted up Alexandria families with children out of poverty. “Without it people would not even be able to purchase food. I will tell you people have been calling to see if they can get an increase because of the price of food.”
The situation will worsen when the temporary SNAP emergency benefits put in place during Covid expire in February 2023. As a result approximately 3,845 Alexandria households will see their SNAP benefits decrease in March.
Okoronkwo says, “I don’t want people to think they lose the SNAP benefit entirely; it’s only the temporary SNAP increase.” But for a SNAP recipient struggling to make ends meet each month, any decrease in assistance is a challenge.
Okoronkwo explains that 6,409 households are currently receiving SNAP benefits which translates into 12,129 individuals. He says the number started going up in March 2020 and “went through the roof.” Then it tampered down but he says now it’s up again, an increase of 20 percent.
Okoronkwo says SNAP benefits for one person with no income are $250 a month. For a family of 4 with no income SNAP benefits are $939 a month. SNAP benefits are based on 130 percent of the Federal poverty level and focused on gross income. A family of four could be eligible if their income is up to $3,007 monthly, or $1,473 for an individual. If you exceed the income limit, you do not qualify for benefits.
Okoronkwo says, “Just 3 or 4 years ago I realized the high level of food insecurity in Alexandria. If you tell people, they won’t know. Unless you read about it or know someone, you don’t know it is possible.” He continues, “It is hard the way I look at it. Congress argues you don’t want to pay more taxes but do we really want to meet these people who are affecting our voting?”
Okoronkwo explains that each state defines what can be purchased with the EBT card. It doesn’t cover meals in restaurants.
The City of Alexandria has immediate food resources for those experiencing food insecurity available through ALIVE!, an interfaith non-profit that serves the most vulnerable in the community.
“We served 1,300 households at one of our neighborhood pop up clinics last Saturday—17,000 people last month, 4,000 households,” Jennifer Ayers, Executive Director of ALIVE! says. “We are at capacity with our ability to serve; we can’t grow much more with the funding we have.” ALIVE! is supported by a combination of private donors, grants and the City government.
Ayers says they are trying to anticipate the need when the supplemental SNAP benefits expire. “We’re reviewing all of our service plans to be sure we have enough inventory and working with social services to see who may be losing benefits, to reach out to identify people who may need a little extra support.”
ALIVE! supplies food to most of the Alexandria food pantries, the neighborhood pop up clinics, weekend backpack buddies for school children as well as emergency deliveries to homebound people in need. “But I’m really worried about what’s next. I want to get out word that we have resources.”
Ayers says that food donations are important, especially cooking oil, rice, canned protein, beans and canned fruit and tomatoes. “We have been asked a lot about lentils lately.” She says,”We recently got a big donation from the Islamic Relief Fund of 70 pallets of food. It’s like a tractor trailer full. The high school is going to box the food on Monday. It’s a lot of work.”
Another related issue is the emergency Medicaid coverage provided to any individual in need of health insurance during the pandemic will end in February. This will require all Medicaid recipients to undergo reevaluation of their Medicaid coverage. “DCHS Benefits Division anticipates that 6,549 Alexandrians receiving Medicaid will lose coverage in the eligibility redetermination process due to their income or citizenship status.” Okoronkwo says that Alexandria added 6,000 when the Medicaid expansion started but as of December the number was 10,383.
The DCHS Benefits Division will mail information to all SNAP recipients with information on how to appeal, as well as information to all individuals who are no longer eligible for Medicaid on how to access the Federal Health Insurance Marketplace. If a beneficiary’s income or number of household members has changed, they should email DCHSPublicBenefits@alexandriava.gov. If you have questions about your benefits, call 855-635-4370 or visit the DCHS office at 2525 Mount Vernon Avenue or the new DCHS location at 4850 Mark Center after Feb. 3.