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  • Writer's pictureHunger-Free Pennsylvania

Food security for Pennsylvanians could be in peril with food stamp changes, groups fear

STEPHEN HUBA | Thursday, February 20, 2020 4:21 p.m.



200,000 Number of Pennsylvanians who could lose SNAP benefits under Trump rule

36,400 Number of Southwestern Pennsylvania residents who could lose benefits

25.9% Percentage of Hispanic households in Pennsylvania deemed "food insecure"

11% Percentage of Pennsylvania households deemed "food insecure" in 2018

13,000 Number of people in Pittsburgh area brought out of "food desert" by 412 Food Rescue

Source: Pennsylvania Population Network, Pennsylvania Department of Human Services

Although food insecurity in Pennsylvania is at a 10-year low, there is a rising level of concern that changes coming to the food stamp program could reverse that number.

An estimated 11% of households in Pennsylvania were considered “food insecure” in 2018, compared to nearly 15% in 2008, according to the paper “Hunger in the Commonwealth: Food Insecurity in Pennsylvania.”

The paper, authored by Raeven Faye Chandler of the Pennsylvania Population Network, notes that food insecurity among seniors has increased every year since 2016 and that people in rural counties are at increased risk of food insecurity — often because of lack of transportation or nearby grocery stores.

The paper uses 18 conditions to measure food insecurity, including fears about food running out, eating less and skipping meals.“

Upcoming changes in eligibility requirements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) highlight the need to better understand hunger and food security within our own communities,” Chandler noted in the paper, which does not take a position on the impending changes to SNAP eligibility. “Positive strategies to address these issues include support for food assistance programs like SNAP and more localized efforts to increase access to food sources.”

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating broad-based categorical eligibility for SNAP, meaning a certain category of recipients will no longer be automatically eligible for food stamps.

The proposed rule change would cancel food stamp benefits for about 120,000 Pennsylvania households, or about 200,000 people statewide, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

Of those, an estimated 16,500 live in Allegheny County and more than 6,000 in Westmoreland County, according to DHS. Philadelphia County stands to lose the most at nearly 36,000 people.

The Trump administration also has proposed changes to the Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents program, which could jeopardize SNAP access for more than 92,000 Pennsylvania residents, and the heating/cooling Standard Utility Allowance, which could affect an estimated 775,000 households in Pennsylvania, according to DHS.

Of the three rules, only the Able-Bodied Adults rule has been finalized and is set to take effect in April, said DHS spokeswoman Erin James.“

We want the public to be fully informed so that there is an opportunity for them to make their voices heard — and for the Trump administration to consider that feedback and hopefully make a different decision,” James said.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said the proposed change to broad-based categorical eligibility is meant to close a SNAP loophole that the Trump administration considers wasteful and ripe for fraud.

Pennsylvania DHS Secretary Teresa Miller said last year that she has heard concerns from Pennsylvania food banks about the lack of a backup plan if hundreds of thousands of people lose benefits.“

One of the things I hear from all of them is: We can’t make up the difference. SNAP is such an important anti-hunger program that I don’t think our local charitable food networks will be able to make up that difference,” she said.

Westmoreland County Food Bank CEO Jennifer Miller said the SNAP changes could create more food insecurity for people who are working but whose income is just high enough to disqualify them for benefits.“

There is such a benefits cliff when those who rely on assistance begin to work and then they no longer qualify for help during the transition,” Miller said. “With child care costs, gas, day-to-day living expenses, it is a very difficult thing to maneuver, at times, for anyone.”

The Westmoreland food bank has a SNAP application assistance program that served 390 individuals or families last year. Of those applicants, 44% were seniors, said Texie Waddell, director of agency relations.“

For some seniors, there’s a stigma about even applying for SNAP,” Waddell said.

Last week, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne hosted a roundtable discussion on the SNAP rule changes with Miller. The food bank, which serves 11 counties, expects to feel an impact from the rule changes, said Adam Morgan, advocacy coordinator.“

We’re definitely trying to get a sense of where in our service area these rule changes will have the most impact,” he said.

Morgan said 36,400 people in the 11-county area, not including Westmoreland, stand to lose SNAP benefits under the rule changes — something that charities would have a hard time overcoming.“

For every one meal that we can provide, SNAP provides 12. The domino effect that would reach us can’t be overstated. We would not be able to fill that gap,” he said. “All these people getting kicked off SNAP in 11 counties — I can’t imagine the strain that would put on us.”

Another Pittsburgh agency that is addressing the problem of food access is 412 Food Rescue, which seeks to recover good, surplus food and deliver it to charities and places where hunger is an issue. 412 Food Rescue does so by enlisting a small army of volunteers who, through the use of a smartphone app, make food pickups and deliveries.“

We try to bring food close to where people are, so you negate the need for transportation,” said Leah Lizarondo, co-founder and CEO.

Lizarondo said 412 Food Rescue seeks to overcome “food deserts,” places where there is no grocery store within walking distance, and “transportation deserts,” places where there is no reliable access to public transportation.“

Even if you qualify for food support but you have to take a bus to a food pantry, then it’s really not food access,” she said.

412 Food Rescue’s mission is enabled by smartphone technology.“

The only way to get to certain areas is to have a very dynamic fleet … and that’s not trucks. We are able to drop off a few boxes because we don’t need a truck to do that,” Lizarondo said.

An estimated 8,000 people receive push-notifications for food pickups through the Food Rescue Hero app. About half of them have successfully completed a food rescue, Lizarondo said.

Since 412 Food Rescue’s founding in 2015, 13,000 people in the Pittsburgh area have been brought out of the food desert and closer to a food source, she said.“

There are more options now for people to walk to a food access point,” she said.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, or via Twitter.


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