Legislators look at increasing SNAP funding as inflation continues

Jun. 19—State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and state Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, the co-chairs of the state legislature's Appropriations Committee, are exploring the possibility of expanding Emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in the state.

For now, though, SNAP recipients are seeing a little extra money due to a change at the federal level made last year.

On Friday, the state Department of Social Services sent out more than $33 million in SNAP benefits to more than 200,000 households — the money will go on recipients' Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. The extra money, accounting for a minimum of $95 per household, is a result of the state legislature extending Gov. Ned Lamont's executive order this year declaring the COVID-19 pandemic a public emergency.

"The $95 increase results from President Biden's January 22, 2021, executive order, which required the USDA to consider new guidance allowing states to increase SNAP emergency benefit allocations for all households, including those previously ineligible to receive it," a Friday news release from DSS reads. "This increase is expected to be ongoing, contingent on the continuation of the state and federal public health emergencies."

According to DSS, as of May 31, there are approximately 378,680 residents receiving SNAP benefits in the state. Almost $750 million in SNAP funding has gone to Connecticut since the pandemic began.

"SNAP maximum benefit levels are set by the federal government and are adjusted each year based on the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP)," the DSS told The Day in a statement. "The TFP is the cost of groceries needed to provide a healthy, budget-conscious diet for a family of four. TFP adjustments are made by USDA's Food and Nutrition Service in June and take effect on Oct. 1.

The 2018 Farm Bill triggered a review of the Thrifty Food Plan, the first review in 46 years. The TFP review resulted in an increase in SNAP benefits equating, generally, to between $12 and $16 per person, per month beginning October 2021. More information can be found at https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/thriftyfoodplan.

As federal benefits, the state legislature doesn't have the authority to increase SNAP aid, but Osten and Walker are planning on asking for an increase.

"Representative Walker and I are going through all of the state agencies' budgets," Osten said. "We went over the DSS budget with the Office of Fiscal Analysis on Wednesday, and we sent an email to the commissioner (Deidre Gifford) about both the heating assistance program and SNAP because they're both interconnected, and we want to make sure that we're looking at this ahead of time."

"Both of these programs are federal programs. It's not up to the Governor, it's up to us to at least see if the possibility of the federal government expanding, or increasing the amount for SNAP and heating assistance, are possibilities," Osten added. "That's why we're talking to the commissioner, to see what she has to say about it."

Osten said the appropriations committee will be meeting over the next couple months, and she and Walker want to have answers for committee members.

"We just want to understand the process so that we can see if it's a possibility," Osten said. "And we want to make sure that we are looking at all of the issues sort of right up front to see if it's a possibility for us to ask for an increase from the federal government on these two programs."

Thames Valley Council for Community Action Marketing Director Barbara Crouch said the organization helps people see if they're eligible for SNAP aid, and if eligible, the TVCCA helps them fill out the DSS application.

"Since we're a community action agency we can go right into the state's site and fill out that application for them immediately," Crouch said. "One of the benefits we offer is ... if you're in need of food immediately, we do have grocery store gift cards that we can give you until your SNAP benefits are activated."

People can visit the TVCCA offices at 83 Huntington St, New London and 401 West Thames Street in Norwich for assistance filing for SNAP aid, or they can meet virtually with a TVCCA representative.

Crouch said there's always a need for additional SNAP funding.

"I can say the state has been as receptive as possible. The community action agencies in the state of Connecticut all work with the state, and they are very receptive," Crouch said. "There's a certain amount of money, there are certain guidelines, so within those I can say the state has been as responsive as they can be."

The DSS said that the state legislature and governor could supplement federal SNAP benefits with state-funded benefits.

"While it is important to note that we are an administrative agency of government and do not have overall responsibility to make funding and policy decisions, DSS generally supports any initiatives that would increase eligible families' or individuals' ability to afford nutritious food," DSS wrote in its statement to The Day. "Improving access to nutritious food leads to reduced healthcare spending, reduced likelihood of hospital visits, overall better long-term health outcomes, as well as long-term health outcomes to future generations. SNAP participants report that the most common barrier to achieving a healthy diet throughout the month is the affordability of healthy foods such as lean meat and fresh fruits and vegetables. This is why we supported the review of the TFP done in October as well as why we continue to provide federal SNAP emergency allotments, which ensure all participants receive at least an additional $95 in SNAP benefits monthly during the public health emergency."

Osten agreed, saying that SNAP is "a lifeline for some people."

"That's why we need to keep an eye on SNAP, not only SNAP for the regular recipients but also for those who get free and reduced lunch," Osten said. "We put $30 million in ARPA to expand and continue the free and reduced lunch. That's in the budget right now for the student population."

s.spinella@theday.com