Washington food banks brace for 'hunger cliff' amid SNAP cuts

As food-stamp recipients see grocery budgets tighten, state proposals would shift money to already strained and short-staffed local services.

a woman shops at a food bank in Seattle

Mary Hostetter picks up food at a pop-up food bank organized by White Center Food Bank at Arrowhead Gardens Senior Apartments on Thursday. Food banks are expecting a surge after Congress recently voted to cut SNAP benefits back to pre-pandemic levels. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Billie Overgaard looked up from her checklist at a line of about a dozen seniors, many sporting walkers with built-in carts, as it stretched out the double doors and onto the sidewalk. Behind her, purple-shirted volunteers stood ready to hand out boxes of canned beans, oats, cartons of milk, bread and vegetables.

Overgaard, wearing a jacket over her hoodie to protect against the cold blowing in the open doors, greeted each person and checked names off on her master list. Some offered ID cards, but many she already knew by name. A man in a green jacket walked in, and Overgaard waved him through. 

“Hey Bob, I gotcha,” Overgaard said. 

Once every two weeks, this vacant retail storefront transforms into a pop-up food bank, courtesy of White Center Food Bank and volunteers like Overgaard, who are also residents here at Arrowhead Gardens, a senior apartment complex just off Highway 509 in White Center.

Food banks have served as a crucial lifeline for seniors during the pandemic, and demand has only continued to grow. Now they’re bracing for another surge in need come March 1, when pandemic-era increases to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) disappear, cutting close to $100 a month from many users’ food budgets. 

This story is a part of Crosscut’s WA Recovery Watch, an investigative project tracking federal dollars in Washington state.

Aid from multiple federal relief packages funded a historic expansion of the social safety net during the pandemic’s peak, scaling up unemployment and housing assistance programs, as well as cash benefits like SNAP, commonly called food stamps. Now that money is drying up: Congress voted to cut SNAP benefits back to their pre-pandemic levels in December as part of its yearly appropriations bill.

As federal support for pandemic-era anti-poverty programs tapers off, states are left to fill in the gaps. Washington legislators have proposed sending additional funds to food banks to address what some nonprofits are describing as a “hunger cliff.” But those proposals would not replace the lost benefits. They’re a stopgap aimed at backfilling an anticipated rise in demand at food banks for the next year or two.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposal recommended putting more than $100 million into food programs, using some of the state’s last remaining federal dollars. That money would extend for two more years a pandemic-era program called We Feed WA that purchased food from farms and distributors and delivered it to local community centers, schools and nonprofits.

Katie Rains, a food policy adviser at the state Department of Agriculture, which runs We Feed WA, emphasized that these programs are not in any way a replacement for food stamps.

“There is nothing we have found a way to achieve at the state level that will fill the hole caused by this reduction in SNAP benefits,” Rains said. “If anything, this is our effort to help [the] community brace.”

Every recipient will see at least a $95 reduction in their food stamp allotment, according to an analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). But the cuts will be more severe for certain groups, especially single seniors, who saw some of the biggest bumps during the pandemic and are adjusted down when Social Security benefits go up. Some could see their cash assistance plummet as the minimum benefit reverts from a pandemic high of $281 back down to $23. 

Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) estimates that benefits will go down statewide by about $90 million per month beginning in March. Some 520,000 households in the state receive SNAP.

The cuts are expected to shift further strain onto food banks, which saw demand spike during the pandemic and have continued to be squeezed by supply shortages and inflation pressures. In December, the largest distributor to food banks in Eastern Washington suspended deliveries after running out of food.  

“We honestly don’t have more food that we can give,” said Christina Wong, director of public policy and advocacy at Northwest Harvest, one of the largest distributors to food banks across the state. Food supply is down about 80% from this time last year, Wong said. 

Seniors enjoy a meal from Lake City Community Center’s meal program, run by a group called Hunger Intervention Program. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Pinching fixed incomes

A volunteer passed two packs of shrink-wrapped pork chops over the check-in table to Overgaard, who plopped them in the basket attached to her walker. 

“That’s my meat for two weeks,” Overgaard said.

Meat is harder to come by at the food bank, several seniors told Crosscut, and is more expensive to buy at the store, so it’s a luxury for those on fixed incomes. 

“I was kind of a forced vegetarian before [SNAP],” Overgaard said. “And I’m sure that will be the case again.”

Overgaard, who is 67, has lived at Arrowhead Gardens for a decade. Like many residents here, she has a fixed income – in her case, a pension from her career at the U.S. Postal Service. When she retired in 1996, it was adequate to live on, but inflation, a divorce and rent increases have eaten away at her financial security. In late 2021, after her rent went up again, an on-site social worker encouraged her to re-apply for SNAP, and this time she was eligible.

The monthly stipend is just barely enough to live on, Overgaard said, if she’s frugal and supplements with food banks. She expects to lose about half of that when her card is loaded next month.

“For them to cut SNAP right now is very painful for a lot of us,” Overgaard said. “I don’t know what happens to people without access to a food bank, I really don’t.”

Some of her neighbors recently got the management to charter a shuttle bus to food banks that don’t deliver. Some food banks have limits on how often someone can come, especially if they want meat. One of the residents, who asked not to be named, said she visits different food banks each week, alternating so she doesn’t run afoul of the weekly limits. 

Over the years, Overgaard said, she has cut everything she doesn’t consider essential out of her budget. The last time her rent was raised, she dropped her cable and internet, opting to rely on a temperamental Wi-Fi hotspot to access email updates about her numerous volunteer commitments. She has remained on her ex-husband’s phone plan. Her other main expenses are medication, so there’s not much more to cut. 

“You can’t not pay rent, and if you want to stay alive and healthy at our age, you can’t not pay insurance and medicine.” 

Overgaard paused for a moment, taking mental inventory of her expenses.

“The only other thing I can do is let go of my cats,” she said, “and they kept me sane during lockdown.”

“When the older one dies, I probably won’t replace him – that will be my adjustment.”

Seniors pick up food at a pop-up food bank organized by White Center Food Bank. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

State proposals to stopgap

Pandemic shutdowns prompted a once-in-a-generation expansion of the federal government’s role in keeping low-income people housed and fed, offering a glimpse at what a more robust social safety net might look like.

“For the first time, we heard stories from people – not that they were doing really well – but that they were able to have a more nutritious and balanced diet,” said Wong of Northwest Harvest. “This really helped kind of establish and show what hunger advocates have been saying for a long, long time, which is that SNAP benefits are woefully inadequate to keep up with today’s cost for food.”

That same budget bill that ended those more robust SNAP benefits also included a $4 million earmark for Food Lifeline, a Seattle food bank supplier. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the Appropriations Committee, toured Food Lifeline last week and put out a statement touting other funding for food programs and vowing to defend SNAP against future cuts.

In an email, Murray spokesperson Amir Avin emphasized her support for the relief packages that enabled the initial expansion of SNAP and pushed back against the characterization of ending the enhanced benefits as cuts. He also placed responsibility for the cuts on Republican opposition. 

“It was Murray and other Senate Democrats who fought for that increase,” Avin wrote.

Now, as federal money for those expanded safety net programs shuts off, state governments are bracing for the effects of more poverty.

Guadalupe Gonzalez receives a meal from Lake City Community Center’s meal program, run by a group called Hunger Intervention Program, on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. Recipients of federal food benefits (known as SNAP or food stamps) will see their benefits cut in March by an average of about $100. Places like Lake City Community Center could see an increase in need. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Ahead of looming budget negotiations, Democrats in the state House Appropriations Committee have advanced an early-action bill to expedite an additional $28 million toward restocking food banks and senior nutrition programs. If passed, that money could go out the door several months before the new budget kicks in.

Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, who sponsored the bill, acknowledged that the need far outweighs the resources in her bill, but said the state does not have the money to fully replace the benefits that are being lost.

“We were only really able to refill the buckets of these different anti-hunger efforts that could take the resources and move very quickly,” Gregerson said. “I guess it’s up to the states to be creative, so that’s where we are at, we’re in the creative phase.”

Wong of Northwest Harvest said she was “appreciative and thankful” for the governor’s budget proposal, but noted that sustainably tackling hunger would require a significant and permanent expansion of direct benefits to low-income people. She cited increasing cash benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), as well as expanding the state’s Working Families Tax Credit. 

Wong said she also supports a bill recently introduced in the Legislature to expand free school meals to more students. She worries that as federal investments fall off, we could be in for a repeat of the situation after the 2008 recession.

“Those investments were really tested and proven during the pandemic to be working,” she said. “But now that the federal tap has been turned off, it hasn’t been long enough to really help people get a proper foothold.”

Find tools and resources in Crosscut’s Follow the Funds guide to track down federal recovery spending in your community.

In addition to seniors, the cuts could further squeeze grocery budgets for families. For Janine, a North Seattle mom and solo parent who asked to be identified by first name only, SNAP is one piece of the puzzle that gives her a little breathing room. She said it helps her afford to keep her 16-year-old son enrolled in sports, for example.

Along with food banks, she recently started using an app called “Too Good To Go,” where grocery stores will list surprise bags of items on the verge of their expiration date for heavy discounts. Janine said she makes multiple trips a week to claim the bags, and then plans meals around whatever they contain. 

She’s confident she’ll find a way to make it work, but next month’s change will make things just a little bit harder, she said. And more time dedicated to scrimping means less time to spend with her son.

“Even with all those creative, single mom things that I do,” she said, “if SNAP went away, it wouldn’t be enough anymore.”

Seniors pick up food at a pop-up food bank organized by White Center Food Bank at Arrowhead Gardens Senior Apartments on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. Food banks are expecting a surge after Congress recently voted to cut SNAP benefits back to pre-pandemic levels. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Brandon Block

Brandon Block is an investigative reporter at Cascade PBS, focused on following the federal recovery money flowing into Washington state.