ATLANTA — Big changes to a critical food assistance program are less than two weeks away.
Starting June 1, SNAP benefits will go back to the way they were before the pandemic. That means Georgians who received extra funding towards food will see emergency benefits end.
That timeline is of particular concern to metro Atlanta food banks, who are still working to get local families back on their feet.
"Now the concern is food prices are going up. Gas prices are going up. Rent is going up," Rev. Dr. Lisa Heilig, executive director of Toco Hills Community Alliance, explained.
Around 80 families a day depend on the Toco Hill site’s distribution efforts, and while Heilig said most families the organization serves have returned to work, there's a concern that paychecks aren't able to cover basic necessities given inflation and other costs. The emergency SNAP benefits put in place by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act will also end at the same time schools break for the summer, a time when food banks traditionally see a spike in need.
"Beginning in June, each SNAP household in Georgia will again – as was the case before the COVID-19 pandemic – receive benefits based on the usual factors in determining eligibility, including household size, income, and deductions," Georgia Department of Human Services said in a press release. "Therefore, the amount of the benefits will vary and depend on each household’s circumstances."
Such households are already especially vulnerable, Jon West of Atlanta Community Food Bank, explained.
"Those [SNAP] benefits will no longer be at that emergency allotment level, but will revert back to the normal benefit level for folks that are eligible," West said. "Even if it's a 15 to 20% of a loss of your food budget, that's a pretty big adjustment to make regardless of who you are. And we know those folks have the least amount of margin within their budgets already. They're already making challenging tradeoffs to make ends meet on a month-to-month basis."
According to a Georgia Budget and Policy Institute breakdown, SNAP helps around 1 in 7 Georgia residents, while 73% of Georgia SNAP participants are in families with children. As a result, ACFB is ramping up efforts with the expectation the food bank and community partners like Toco Hills Community Alliance will need to fill the gap as SNAP participants adjust to changes.
Meanwhile, Atlanta Community Food Bank continues to operate at elevated levels, West said, distributing 8 million pounds of food per month compared to 6 million pounds pre-pandemic.
"Still pretty significantly elevated above our pre-COVID normal," West explained. "Which does just signal an ongoing need there in our communities."
Despite the anticipation, there will be a spike in need this summer. The need for further resources remains difficult to quantify, and that concerns Heilig, who worries how families will cope.
"That's part of the reason this is so hard," Heilig said. "Because we just don't know."