‘Just scraping by’: Pa. families waiting on additional SNAP benefits as court fight continues

An October survey showed an increase in food insecurity in southwestern Pa. of more than 40 percent.

Volunteers load boxes of food into a car during a Greater Pittsburgh Community Food bank drive-up food distribution

Volunteers load boxes of food into a car during a Greater Pittsburgh Community Food bank drive-up food distribution in Duquesne, Pa., Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

This story originally appeared on WESA.


Every month, there’s a rough week and a half period for Jennifer Eber and her daughter, when they have exhausted their monthly food stamp benefits.

Eber, a single mom living in McKees Rocks, was laid off from her customer service job because of the coronavirus pandemic. She is looking for work but said she and her daughter are struggling.

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“It’s been rough,” she said. Enhanced unemployment benefits over the spring and summer helped, but when those came to an end, she needed to apply for food stamps.

“You know, we’re just scraping by,” she said.

Eber is one of many people who are facing hard times right now. Advocacy and anti-hunger groups say food insecurity has skyrocketed during the pandemic.

An October survey from Feeding America showed an increase in food insecurity in southwestern Pennsylvania of more than 40 percent. The number of people receiving food stamps in Pennsylvania has grown by more than 118,000 since February, according to the most recent state statistics.

Pennsylvania human services officials say they have been trying for months to get additional help to Eber and as many as 700,000 others in her situation. State officials say the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed by Congress in March, allows for all food stamp recipients to receive additional aid.

“These are individuals and families who, in ordinary times, have demonstrated tremendous need for support,” said Liz Tilahun, a deputy secretary at the state’s Department of Human Services.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the aid is capped, and the lowest-income Pennsylvanians – who are already receiving the maximum benefit due to their low incomes – should not receive any additional help.

This disagreement is currently the subject of a federal court case.

“This means that the poorest 40 percent of SNAP households, who were already receiving the maximum SNAP benefit, are receiving nothing to meet their pandemic-related food needs, while the least poor SNAP households are getting substantial help. This cannot be what Congress intended,” said Louis Hayes, an attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, who filed the lawsuit.

The USDA said in a statement that it doesn’t comment on pending litigation. However, a spokesperson said it is committed to responding to the pandemic. The agency pointed to several steps it has taken, such as assisting with school meals to children, expanding access to online food purchases, and billions of dollars in aid to local food banks.

But Eber said food stamps aren’t enough to get her and her daughter through the month. Sometimes, she must ask her family for help.

“But you can only go so far with that, you know everyone’s hurting right now. So there have been weeks where, you know, we’re stretching it… Eating a lot of carbs, a lot of spaghetti, not really that healthfully, but we’re getting by.”

What would she do if she had more money for food? Eber says would buy things like meat, vegetables, and healthier items, which she can’t really do now.

“Sometimes I can’t, I gotta eat what I have. You gotta buy cheap food sometimes. It’s difficult. It would be nice to have a little bit more so that we could get through that one, hard week, you know?”

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In September, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to stop denying the emergency benefits while the court case is ongoing.

The USDA said in a court filing it would provide the benefits, but said if it ultimately succeeded in court, the state would need to repay the federal government the $82 million per month the program costs.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for later this month.

In a statement, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf blasted the Trump administration’s position, calling it “mean-spirited, dangerous and just plain wrong.”

His concerns were echoed by Pittsburgh-based advocacy group Just Harvest, who helped Eber apply for food assistance. Ann Sanders, a policy advocate with the group said the organization has been assisting record numbers of applicants.

“The fact that the Trump administration is still trying to block extra nutrition assistance for those who are in most need of it serves no purpose beyond sheer cruelty,” she said.

Many officials believe the USDA will reverse course under the incoming Biden administration, but that’s still more than a month away.

And that doesn’t help people who are hungry today, Hayes said.

“People need food now, they needed it months and months ago, Congress intended them to have it back in March, so delaying into 2021 is very frustrating,” she said.

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