Tens of thousands of Utah households that rely on food stamps will be getting February’s benefits weeks early, another complication of the federal shutdown that has left the program with an uncertain future.
State officials who administer the food program on Wednesday had a word of warning for recipients: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits they’ll be getting over the next few days will have to tide them over through February. And at this point, no funding is in place for March’s food-stamp allotment, said Dale Ownby, who heads the state division that oversees the SNAP program in Utah.
"If government funding is restored, our eligible customers will not receive SNAP benefits again until March, at the latest March 15. So it is important that our customers realize this is not an extra payment. This is an early payment, and they need to be mindful that they budget accordingly," said Ownby, eligibility services director in the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
Ownby said about 75,000 Utah households — with a total of more than 200,000 people — receive SNAP assistance. And nonprofit leaders say the state's charitable groups would not be equipped to shoulder the burden if this federal nutrition program lapses.
"The fact that we are putting ... 200,000 Utah individuals at risk of experiencing hunger is unconscionable. I mean, I can't believe that we're even having this conversation," Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, said following a news conference at the Utah Food Bank warehouse in Salt Lake City.
Next month’s SNAP benefits are authorized by a continuing resolution that expired Dec. 21, and states must make the disbursement within 30 days of that date, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has explained.
So program participants will see their SNAP cards refilled with February’s benefits by Sunday — about a month ahead of schedule, in some cases.
Typically in Utah, the release of monthly SNAP benefits totaling $20 million to $25 million is spaced out over three dates so that grocery stores aren't overwhelmed by an influx of shoppers.
Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association, said his organization has put out a call to its member stores to prepare for the February disbursement, which will replenish all SNAP cards at roughly the same time.
"We want to make sure that our inventory supplies at a retail level are sufficient to service these SNAP participants as they come in," said Davis, who said his association includes all the major grocery chains and independent grocers. "I want to be clear: We do not anticipate there being empty shelves out there in the grocery stores."
So far through the 26-day federal shutdown, the longest in the nation’s history, the Utah Food Bank has not seen a significant increase in requests for supplies, said Ginette Bott, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. The exception is a pantry in Ogden, near an Internal Revenue Service processing center with nearly 5,000 furloughed employees. The Ogden pantry reported an increase of 50 families served last week, she said.
The union representing IRS workers said Wednesday that some 1,000 workers are being called back to work at the Ogden center, although they won’t receive paychecks until the shutdown is over.
If the shutdown continues into February or March, the food bank does expect an increased demand, especially along the Wasatch Front, and the organization has been making sure it has the supplies and manpower to take on the task, she said.
"We've been at this 115 years, and we've watched a variety of different problems with hunger come through our state. This is one more that's a bigger challenge," she said. "But one that we're prepared to be able to serve those in need."
A prolonged shutdown, though, would also endanger federally-funded services offered by the Utah Food Bank, such as the Kids Cafe program that provides after-school meals. The summer feeding program, which served up about 100,000 lunches last year, would also be at risk.
"If the government does not reopen, that program will not happen," Bott said.
Ownby said if the federal governments fails to fund SNAP benefits for March — a development that would be unprecedented, to his knowledge — it’s not clear what will happen. There have been conversations at the state level about how to deal with this scenario, but nothing has been decided, he said.