As pandemic unemployment aid drops off, expect Utah’s food stamp requests to pick up

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Volunteers sort through food at the Taylorsville Food Pantry on Saturday, May 30, as people line up outside.

When the coronavirus landed in Utah and grounded tens of thousands of jobs, new requests for food stamps took off, soaring by 38% in one month.

Once new unemployment benefits kicked in for many laid-off workers, especially a $600-a-week stipend in federal relief, the number of Utahns receiving food aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program settled back to pre-pandemic levels.

Now, however, with that bonus payment gone and the labor market still rocked by COVID-19 turbulence, Utah officials and advocates expect another wave of SNAP requests.

“The $600 a week is ending, so there are going to be a lot of people who are still unemployed,” said Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger. “And we hope that folks who are losing those $600 on unemployment will apply for food stamps. It’s an important resource for families to buy food.”

In the early spring, when the virus surfaced in Utah and jobs began to evaporate, the state saw new SNAP applications jump from 14,485 in February to 20,042 in March, according to statistics from the Department of Workforce Services.

The number of Utah households receiving food stamps grew from 73,756 in February to 74,467 in March and 77,647 in April, which saw another 20,318 fresh applications.

By May, though, SNAP requests fell to 14,509 and the number of families receiving food stamps dropped to 73,781. In June, the department reported, 71,401 households were on SNAP, while applications rose again, this time to 16,443.

The number “usually follows our economy,” said Muris Prses, the department’s assistant director of eligibility services.

Prses says the extra unemployment payment not only helped families stay off SNAP but also prevented some of them from even qualifying for it.

“That payment has counted against SNAP cases,” Prses said. “People exceeded the limits for being eligible for SNAP.”

If one person in a family of three receives that unemployment benefit, for instance, it would disqualify that household from getting food stamps. SNAP guidelines deem that a family of that size cannot earn more than $2,311 a month.

The end of July brought not only the end of the $600 weekly jobless bonus but also a possible reduction in SNAP benefits. Since April, families have been awarded an emergency food stamp allotment. A three-member family that had been receiving $200 a month, for example, was getting $509.

To continue this benefit, the state would have to extend that emergency provision.

“If the governor announces the change in our declaration,” Prses said, “we will certainly pursue that for the month of August additionally, to help people more.”

Thousands of anti-hunger organizations are imploring federal officials to “act now” to bolster SNAP.

In a letter to the top two U.S. Senate leaders — signed by nearly 2,500 national, state, regional and local organizations — they are calling for:

• A 15% boost in the maximum SNAP benefit.

• An increase in the $16 monthly SNAP minimum to $30.

• A suspension of SNAP time limits and other rule changes that would reduce eligibility and benefits.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated already too high levels of food insecurity in America,” the advocates wrote. “...We urge Congress and the White House to take action now to limit the depth and duration of this health and economic crisis by ensuring that the basic food needs of struggling families and individuals are met.”

They also are pushing the feds to extend and expand a pandemic program that, starting in August, will provide families with a one-time payment of $308 for each child who had free or reduced-fee school lunches last spring.

SNAP recipients will automatically get this payout; others will have to apply. (Utah initially worried it wouldn’t be able to secure the necessary data to enroll in the “Pandemic — Electronic Benefit Transfer” but eventually won federal approval to participate.)

Nonprofits have run into logistical tangles amid COVID-19. In-person community outreach programs have been hard to maintain as the virus has spread.

Most food pantries, which helped patrons understand their eligibility for food stamps and often assisted with the application process, are practicing social distancing, Cornia noted, and offering only curbside pickup.

The Crossroads Urban Center food pantry has seen fewer visits by families with kids, said Bill Tibbitts, associate director at the organization. Some of these households have been turning to the Salt Lake City School District’s weekday drive-thru meal service.

“What I’m worried about,” Tibbitts said, “is that the response to the pandemic in terms of the recession has been short term, and I’m worried about what is going to happen if there’s still elevated unemployment in September or October.”