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For Mary Davis of Minnetonka, the extra $286 she receives each month in emergency SNAP benefits starting three years ago is "a godsend."

Davis is one of 432,000 Minnesotans who benefited when Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March 2020, which bumped up federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits to low-income individuals and families.

The program, along with several other pandemic-era federal initiatives, offered a safety net that officials say kept people out of poverty.

"What it has done is stabilize family incomes in a really volatile time," Assistant Commissioner of Human Services Tikki Brown said.

That $1.3 billion boost to Minnesotans' SNAP benefits — formerly known as food stamps but now administered electronically through the swipe of a card — is ending at a time when inflation has caused the price of groceries to soar, leaving many Minnesotans to figure out how to feed their families with less.

Davis' initial amount would have been $230 a month.

"That would have only lasted a week and a half," said Davis, 34, who has a 12-year-old son and is on Social Security disability. "Now with [emergency SNAP] leaving, I'm back to, 'What am I going to do now?'"

Those who advocate for the hungry in Minnesota are bracing for impact, said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions, a Minnesota advocacy group concerned with food security issues. "We have no doubt that it's going to be a crisis."

The emergency benefits offer a minimum of $95 additional to anyone who qualifies, though a family of six could receive more than $500 in emergency SNAP, officials said.

Including emergency SNAP, the maximum benefit for a family of six is $1,339.

The federal government ended emergency SNAP benefits in Minnesota — and in 31 other states — on Tuesday. People should receive their last payments in March.

Need higher than ever

Officials who work for Minnesota food shelves and food banks say the need for food assistance is higher than last year and higher even than before the pandemic started.

Officials from Second Harvest Heartland, a regional food bank, estimated that food costs were about 20% steeper in fall 2022 than the fall before.

Jessica Francis, executive director of Open Cupboard in Oakdale, said her nonprofit serves increasing numbers of hungry people in three ways. There's a drive-up food shelf, two indoor shopping sites and a food delivery service.

On a recent Friday afternoon, customers waited to shop at Today's Harvest, a free market run by Open Cupboard in southern Oakdale. They stocked up on items "rescued" from local grocery stores, ranging from fresh produce to ice cream to Teddy Grahams.

Before the pandemic, Open Cupboard served 420 households a week; now it serves 4,000 households.

"We're looking at the number coming to us every week and just saying, 'Wow, when those benefits end, what are these numbers going to be?'" Francis said.

Second Harvest Heartland operates an outreach program that helps administer SNAP, said Mesa Siebert, neighbor services manager at Second Harvest Heartland.

The SNAP team processed 8,600 new clients in 2022 — triple the number it processed in 2019. She doesn't see a decrease coming anytime soon, she said.

"This is literally the hungriest winter in memory," Siebert said.

Several other federal waivers are expiring, including one that extended SNAP benefits for more than three months to certain recipients, another that enabled more college students to qualify and a third allowing her team to sign people up for SNAP over the phone rather than by mail, Siebert said.

Susan Schroeder, deputy director of Neighbors Inc., said she's especially worried about people on fixed incomes, including seniors and peoplewith disabilities.

"It's particularly difficult to see the most vulnerable struggling to make choices between rent and food," she said.

Planning for more food shelf visits

Moriarty, of Hunger Solutions, said that across the country, groups concerned with food insecurity have devised several strategies to address emergency SNAP's end.

First, organizations helping with SNAP enrollment should ensure applicants are getting the maximum benefit they qualify for by filling out the application as thoroughly as possible.

Nonprofits also can refer the needy to meal programs like Meals on Wheels, Loaves and Fishes and others provided by community groups, along with food shelves.

Food shelves already are under a lot of pressure, Moriarty said, since Minnesotans visited them 2 million more times in 2022 than in 2021 and numbers continue to rise.

"If [food shelves are] the only place they have to go, then we better equip them as quickly as we can with as much food as we can," Moriarty said.

Food shelves also struggle with inflation since they obtain food from a patchwork of sources, including grocery stores, wholesalers, food banks, the federal commodities program and donations. Most food must be purchased or requires payment for delivery.

Moriarty advises people who want to help to donate to food shelves.

Some assistance is on the way. In Minnesota, Hunger Solutions and others have advocated for $5 million in emergency food aid from the Legislature. That measure passed the Senate on Monday and is headed to Gov. Tim Walz's desk.