US is racing toward a looming "hunger cliff," food insecurity experts warn

As pandemic-era emergency SNAP benefits expire, millions of Americans face food insecurity

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published March 4, 2023 5:35PM (EST)

Empty shopping cart in front of a red wall (Getty Images/Christian Adams)
Empty shopping cart in front of a red wall (Getty Images/Christian Adams)

In 2022, one in eight Americans, or more than 41 million people, received benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Over the last three years, these benefits have essentially been supercharged. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress pushed for their expansion as the nation faced tremendous uncertainty over both the economy and grocery supply chain.

As of Wednesday, however, these expanded monthly benefits were officially cut by an average of $90 per recipient. It's a development that pushes the country as a whole toward a looming "hunger cliff," according to food insecurity experts.

During the first three months of the pandemic, more than 6 million people enrolled in food stamps, a surge that was categorized as an "unprecedented expansion" by Jason DeParle for The New York Times in 2021.

"Food stamps — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — support young and old, healthy and disabled, the working and the unemployed, making it the closest thing the United States has to a guaranteed income," DeParle wrote. "Though administered by states, the benefits are paid by the federal government, with no spending cap."

SNAP benefits typically vary based on a recipient's income, but during the temporary congressional expansion, recipients nationwide were offered the maximum aid for their household size.

While some states opted to cut the emergency benefits in spring 2021, 32 states and the District of Columbia maintained them through 2023. This had a significant impact on the states that opted to continue the program. According to findings from the Urban Institute, the emergency allotments kept 4.2 million people out of poverty in the fourth quarter of 2021.

Per the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the benefits were cut months early as part of a bipartisan compromise surrounding a program to provide grocery benefits to replace school meals for low-income children. Initially, the benefits were supposed to be in place until May, when the federal public health emergency that had been declared at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic is set to expire.

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"Every household in those states will receive at least $95 a month less," reports the nonpartisan research and policy institute Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Some households, who under regular SNAP rules receive low benefits because they have somewhat higher, but still modest incomes, will see reductions of $250 a month or more. The average person will receive about $90 a month less in SNAP benefits." 

In a statement to Salon Food, Eric Mitchell, executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, described the expanded benefits as a "lifesaver for many individuals and families as jobs disappeared and the economy grinded to a halt." He continued, writing that while there is never a good time to make it harder for people to buy food, ending benefits now comes at a particularly bad time.

"With inflation and food prices still near record levels, it is still far too expensive for many Americans across the country to put food on the table," Mitchell said. "Without these extra dollars, millions of people will be at risk of hunger."

"With inflation and food prices still near record levels, it is still far too expensive for many Americans across the country to put food on the table."

Food insecurity experts, including Dr. Alice Reznickova of the Union of Concerned Scientists, describe the impending spike in food security as a "hunger cliff."

"Some organizations have been warning the public about the approaching hunger cliff for many of the 42 million people who depend on SNAP," Reznickova wrote in a recent report. "Monthly SNAP benefits will go down approximately $82 per person each month. Because so many people are now at risk of going hungry without these extra benefits, this shows that pre-pandemic SNAP was insufficient."

Reznickova argues that the pandemic expansion of SNAP should actually be considered a permanent policy in the fight against food insecurity. This is further supported by data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showing that 10 to 15% of households in the U.S. were food insecure each year in the last 20 years, highlighting the need to re-evaluate eligibility.

Mitchell agrees, stating that "we should continue to invest in what works."

"Extra SNAP benefits and other programs such as the expanded Child Tax Credit have lifted millions of people out of poverty and helped reduce longstanding racial and ethnic disparities in rates of food insecurity," he wrote. "We know what works to eliminate poverty and end hunger in this country, and we will continue to work with Congress and the Administration to promote common sense policies that raise up the lives and livelihoods of everyday people struggling to make ends meet."

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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