Nearly a million Massachusetts residents who receive federal food assistance will get more money to spend on groceries starting in early February, welcome relief in the midst of an increasingly urgent hunger crisis.
The federal stimulus package passed last month by Congress increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits by 15 percent across the country from January through June. Those benefits, which amount to an additional $27 per person per month, will make a big difference, though they remain temporary and are calculated using low costs for food, especially for a high-cost state like Massachusetts, anti-hunger advocates said.
“A 15 percent increase is helpful, but it’s not a solution,” said John Drew, the president of ABCD, which runs food pantries in Greater Boston and helps people apply for SNAP benefits. “I don’t think it’s nearly enough, to help the people who have been waiting for months.”
In February 2020, roughly 757,000 people in the state were receiving SNAP benefits, compared to 902,000 by December — a striking 20 percent increase, according to state data. Overall, the food insecurity rate in Massachusetts has increased by 59 percent since 2018, the highest percent increase in the country, according to a report from the national group Feeding America.
Staggering photos of food bank lines across the country have highlighted how many Americans are struggling to get enough food. Food banks have been a vital defense against hunger, with many in Massachusetts overwhelmed by the need.
But SNAP benefits are a far more efficient solution to the problem, anti-hunger advocates said. For every meal a food bank provides, SNAP provides nine meals, according to Feeding America. In addition, SNAP is a powerful stimulus: economists calculated that every dollar spent on SNAP during the Great Recession generated $1.79 in economic activity.
“SNAP is by and large the most significant anti-hunger program we have as a country, and that’s certainly true in Massachusetts,” said Vicky Negus, a SNAP policy expert at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. That’s true in dollars, too: Out of $13 billion set aside for food aid in the latest bill, $400 million will go toward food banks. (President-elect Joe Biden’s virus plan also proposes extending the SNAP boost through September.)
Despite the size of its footprint, SNAP has become a political football in recent years, with lawmakers citing food assistance as one of the final sticking points in December’s stimulus negotiations.
“Hunger in our country, it’s our favorite charity,” said Erin McAleer, the president of Project Bread, an anti-hunger organization in Massachusetts. But, she added, “no canned food drive can solve the problem we’re facing right now.”
SNAP is far more effective, she said, because it relies on the existing infrastructure of grocery stores (no need to sign up volunteers or figure out how to store perishables) and allows individuals to purchase the type of food they want. Hunger is an economic condition, McAleer often says — people do not have enough money to buy food — so the best solution is to provide that money.
“We’ve been very vocal in advocating for increases and expansions of SNAP as a systemic, sustainable way of addressing this hunger crisis, and putting relief on a very strained emergency food system,” said Catherine Drennan, a spokeswoman for the Greater Boston Food Bank.
Part of the reason that Massachusetts and other states still need pop-up food sites or pantries is that SNAP has long been underfunded, and people have to visit food pantries when they run out of money before the end of the month, advocates said. There’s also lingering stigma about applying to SNAP. And some immigrant families are ineligible for SNAP or fearful of accessing government benefits, Negus said.
Mary, a 32-year-old mother of three in Greater Boston whom the Globe is identifying by her middle name to protect her children’s privacy, said she had been relying on her local food pantry as well as SNAP benefits, which run out by the third week of the month if she doesn’t supplement them. She had a job lined up to work as an attendant at a funeral home in the spring, but the pandemic meant funerals no longer needed attendants, and she is now unemployed.
With her EBT card, she has been able to shop for and feed her children with the $680 a month, or roughly $6 per day per person, she received. But she still has struggled to afford healthy food, like fresh fruits and vegetables, which are more expensive.
“Were there times when I stood at the checkout line and tried to figure out what I could leave off? Yeah,” she said.
The boost will mean she receives $782 each month, money that will go a long way, she said.
“It’s going to mean my kids are going to get healthier food,” she said. “I can even stock up on things, so that in the future, we don’t run out.”