‘Catastrophe’ for Poor New Yorkers as Pandemic Food Aid Ends
For nearly three years, New Yorkers have been able to take advantage of a pandemic-era lifeline that provided people like Jocelyne Grandu, a retired French teacher who lives in Harlem, with an extra $80 each month in food stamp benefits.
But with that federal assistance ending this month, more than 30 million people across the country are expected to receive less help.
In New York City, more than 1.5 million people, or nearly one in five residents, could receive smaller food stamp benefits, according to nonprofit leaders — reflecting a loss of at least $160 million total in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits each month.
“What we’re seeing is really a catastrophe for well over a million New Yorkers,” said David G. Greenfield, executive director of the Met Council, a prominent Jewish nonprofit that oversees 100 food pantries. “We’re hearing from our clients that they’re rationing things like medication, they’re not going to be able to pay their rent and they can no longer pay for things like child care.”
As Mayor Eric Adams and the City Council negotiate next year’s budget, Mr. Greenfield has called on the city to set aside nearly $13 million in emergency funding for food pantries, where demand for aid has surged: Visits to food pantries in the city rose by more than two-thirds last year compared with 2019.
The mayor’s office said in a statement that the end of the additional SNAP benefits “presents a challenge for families that rely on these benefits to put food on the table.” But with the end of federal pandemic aid and new labor contracts, the city is facing a budget gap of $12 billion in just a few years, according to an analysis by the Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog group. Mr. Adams, a Democrat in his second year in office, has proposed a $550 million plan to cut costs.
City council leaders have criticized the mayor for proposing cuts to key services including libraries and universal preschool.
As part of the federal pandemic policy, each SNAP recipient received an average of $251 a month. That amount is expected to decline by about a third in March, according to the Agriculture Department, which administers the food stamp program.
For Ms. Grandu, 69, the loss of the extra benefits was upsetting. She visited a food pantry in Harlem last Friday looking for a warm meal, and hoping to take home leftover bagels. She often takes home extra milk at lunchtime, too.
“They give us a carton of milk and people sometimes don’t take it, so I take two, and I’m OK for the weekend,” she said. “This is the one thing I have to buy less of, because a carton of milk is so expensive.”
New York City is still struggling to recover from the pandemic. Housing costs have soared and the unemployment rate remains stubbornly higher than the national average — ultimately pushing more people to apply for assistance.
At the Community Kitchen and Pantry in Harlem last Friday afternoon, dozens of people arrived for a warm meal of steak and carrots and rice, served with an everything bagel, a banana and some orange juice. Sean Thomas, 40, said he came to the community kitchen, run by the Food Bank for New York City, because he had run out of food stamps.
“Eggs are expensive,” he said. “Everything is expensive.”
Mr. Greenfield sent a letter this month to Justin Brannan, the chair of the council’s finance committee, urging him to restore a “food pantry initiative” that the city provided during the height of the pandemic.
Mr. Brannan, a Democrat from Brooklyn, said in an interview that he wanted to make food pantries a priority even at a time when the city is facing difficult budget decisions.
“I think it’s definitely something that the Council is going to take a serious look at,” he said. “While Covid might be in our rear view, the lines at our local food pantries certainly haven’t subsided.”
A spokesman for the mayor, Jonah Allon, did not respond to a request for comment about Mr. Greenfield’s appeal for additional funding for food pantries, and highlighted other city funding for food programs, including the Community Food Connection program.
“We will continue to do everything in our power to help New Yorkers in need,” he said.
At the same time, the Adams administration has been criticized for delays in processing food stamp requests, a problem that city officials have blamed in part on a staffing shortage. In January, the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit against the city for failing to process applications and renewals for SNAP and cash assistance benefits within the 30-day time frame required by law.
The delays in processing SNAP requests are getting worse, according to new data from the city’s Department of Social Services. The on-time rate in December 2022 was 22.4 percent — compared with 35.8 percent overall during the second half of last year.
City officials have also blamed the delays on a surge in demand. SNAP applications rose from nearly 27,000 in January 2019 to nearly 45,000 in January 2023, according to the Department of Social Services.
The slowdown further exacerbates what other nonprofit leaders say is a hunger crisis in New York City. Leslie Gordon, president of the Food Bank for New York City, said she was “deeply concerned” about the cuts to SNAP and that her organization was bracing for a “tsunami wave of people to reach our lines.”
The City Council speaker, Adrienne Adams, said in her State of the City speech earlier this month that the city’s food stamp delays were unacceptable. In a statement, she said that the council would be “prioritizing food assistance in the city budget.”
Ms. Adams also called on state leaders in New York to follow the lead of New Jersey lawmakers, who raised the monthly minimum SNAP benefit by providing state funding.
Mr. Greenfield said that emergency funding from the city would help “shore up” the city’s overburdened food pantry system, especially the smaller groups that serve immigrant and minority communities, and would assist New Yorkers who are desperate for help.
“It’s having a dramatic impact,” said Mr. Greenfield of the reduction in benefits. “One woman who has three kids just told us she’s thinking of leaving New York because she can’t afford to live here.”
One of the Met Council’s clients, Laurette Durrant, 68, of Queens, has been receiving $516 per month in food stamps for herself and her granddaughter. That amount will drop this month to $332, according to her SNAP specialist at the Met Council. She said it was difficult to pay her rent and her electricity bills, and she hoped the federal government would consider bringing back the extra benefits.
“That allowance helped me out so much,” she said. “I depend upon it.”
Dana Rubinstein contributed reporting.