More than 15,000 Butler County residents who relied on SNAP food benefits in December will not see their typical distribution in February.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture told states to issue SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits for February by Jan. 18, according to a Jan. 14 notice on the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services' website.
February payments were added to beneficiaries' EBT cards by Jan. 18, but this is the only payment beneficiaries will receive for February, regardless of when the government shutdown ends.
About $1.7 million in benefits is distributed to individuals each month in Butler County.
“SNAP is the nation's most important anti-hunger program. Without it, 1.8 million Pennsylvanians would have greater trouble affording food for themselves and their families,” said DHS Secretary Teresa Miller. “This early payment allows us to get SNAP recipients their benefits for February, but they will have to make this payment last for an undefined period as the (partial federal government) shutdown continues.”
The DHS told SNAP users to “plan accordingly” and budget their food for the rest of January and February.
Benefits are distributed to EBT cards once monthly, and people can receive that money at any point within the first 10 business days of the month. For January, eligible recipient dates were Jan. 2 to 4, 7 to 11 and 14 to 15.
Because February's benefits were required to be given by Jan. 18, some people could have received their January benefits Tuesday and their February benefits Friday in the same week, said DHS Press Secretary Colin Day.
Day urged individuals who received their SNAP benefits early to keep in mind that these are their February benefits, which will need to last them at least until March — and maybe longer.
“Best case scenario, government opens tomorrow,” Day said. “This is still (February's) SNAP benefit, so it needs to last through February, and regular payments (would) resume in March.”
Day said the “minimum of what participants should be doing” is to use February's SNAP payment carefully.
Recipients will not receive a payment on their regularly scheduled February payment date. The DHS has communicated with SNAP recipients to notify them of this change.
Payments beyond February will be determined based on the availability of USDA funds, Day said. The DHS is awaiting information from the USDA on plans for March benefits if the partial federal government shutdown continues.
Day said he couldn't predict what would happen with SNAP benefits for March because the federal government shutdown is affecting the program.
“There's a genuine lack of guidance about what's next,” he said. “We need more information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's so unprecedented. What our office accomplished through getting this benefit out so early is miraculous alone.”
In the meantime, thousands of people will struggle to provide meals for their families.
With SNAP benefits being an uncertainty in the coming months, local food banks and food pantries will likely see increased numbers of families relying on them to supplement what will be missed.
Lee Ann Hune, food programs and client support administrator of The Lighthouse Foundation, said the food bank is preparing for a possible influx of people in need.
“We have been reaching out to do more food drives,” she said. “We have taken in more food, and we are anticipating more food bank recipients.”
About 43 percent of people who utilize services from the foundation also rely on SNAP benefits to meet their needs.
Hune said she believes those coming in will be clients already receiving food from the foundation, but they'll be people who were previously coming in less often. For instance, someone who might only visit during months that bills are higher will now need to come in to make up for any food missed without the usual SNAP benefits.
Hune said she is not sure what the increased numbers might look like, but the foundation currently serves about 300 people per week. She said the foundation experienced a 24 percent increase in that number for Christmas, but she couldn't speculate as to how that might relate to these changes.
Hune said she wants those worried about providing their families with enough food to note that “we're not going anywhere.”
“The Lighthouse will still continue to distribute food and meet the needs of those in the community,” she said. “Please come in and use our resources. If you've never been here before, we would love to meet you, get you signed up and take care of your food needs.”
With the possible increase in food bank recipients, Hune said The Lighthouse could also use more volunteers.
“It certainly will affect the need for volunteers moving forward, but staff are also prepared to step in and fill that need,” she said.
Hune said Tuesdays are a good day to drop by and get involved, and the website has volunteer sign-up options.
Financial contributions can be given on the website, and those interested in hosting a food drive in their community can receive guidelines and assistance from the foundation.
“We always need various items because we are a shop-through food pantry,” Hune said.
The Lighthouse distributes food four days a week, except on holidays, and has hours available on its website and Facebook page.
For more information, visit www.thelighthousepa.org or call 724-586-5554.
Those with questions about their SNAP benefits can contact the local County Assistance Office at 866-256-0093 or 724-284-8844.
For more information about the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and its programs, visit www.dhs.pa.gov.