Early deadline ensures SNAP funding through February

In the wake of the government shutdown, food assistance programs adjust.

SNAP benefits are still available through the Dukes County Social Services Department, from left: Kelly Gallant, program assistant, Esther Laiacona, case worker, and Sarah Kuh, coordinator as well as director of Vineyard Health Care Access Program. — Gabrielle Mannino

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that despite the ongoing government shutdown, now in its fourth week, it would have sufficient funds to supply SNAP recipients with their normal benefits through February. The one catch — recipients must apply for February’s benefits by Jan. 20 — weeks earlier than usual.

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as Food Stamps, is funded by the USDA, but administered state by state. The USDA is one of the nine federal agencies affected by the partial shutdown, and hasn’t received funding since closure on Dec. 21. Without funding, the USDA had to figure out how it would serve SNAP’s 39 million enrolled recipients. The Jan. 20 deadline is a workaround that allows the USDA to take advantage of a 2018 continuing resolution (CR) that kept the government running until Dec. 21. After Dec. 21, the CR allowed the government to continue making payments for another 30 days, which kept SNAP funded through January, and now February — as long as states meet the early deadline. If the shutdown continues, it is unclear whether there will be SNAP funding for March.

On Martha’s Vineyard, SNAP works under the administration of the Dukes County Social Services Department. Local caseworkers Esther Laiacona, Eve Gates, and Kelly Gallant work in the office at 9 Airport Road in Edgartown. Their schedules aren’t affected by the government shutdown. SNAP on Martha’s Vineyard is part of a state-funded program called SNAP Community Outreach, which allows them to partner with the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) and utilize more resources.

“Right now, SNAP recipients have not been affected by the government shutdown,” Laiacona told The Times. “But if you need benefits, you need to apply ASAP.”

People can apply for SNAP online at mass.gov/dta, or walk in or contact the office on 9 Airport Rd. in Edgartown.

“Our focus is processing SNAP cases this week, so people can get benefits next month,” Laiacona said. “But you need to have all your documentation ready to go. There’s no time to find paystubs or letters from employers.”

There are three applications available: one in English, one in Portuguese, and one for people over 60 years old. They’re available online and in the office, whether or not it’s open. Here’s what new applicants and recertifying applicants also need to have onhand:

  • Photo ID
  • Copy of lease or mortgage
  • Proof of income for the past 4 weeks
  • Electric bill and propane bill
  • Proof of medical expenses if you’re claiming medical expenses (i.e insurance copays, insurance premium bills, 12-month printout from a pharmacy, receipts for medications including things bought over the counter, addresses of all medical providers, and a letter describing how often you go.)
  • Proof of family members if claiming family members
  • If on Social Security, bring benefit letter (sometimes a bank statement showing direct deposit will do the trick)

Once the SNAP office receives that information, it’s sent to the DTA in Hyannis, where they comb through every application to make February’s benefits happen.

“It’s a manual operation,” Laiacona said. “Offices are scrambling right now.”

Most SNAP clients will get their benefits on or before Jan. 20, when they’ll see a large balance on their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card.

“It’s not party time. Remember those benefits have to last you through February. Spend carefully,” Laiacona advised.

Laiacona works closely with other food assistance organizations on-Island. The Island Food Pantry is also making adjustments in the wake of the government shutdown.

“On Tuesday, we decided to open extra Food Pantry hours on Thursdays,” Margaret Hannemann, Island Food Pantry coordinator, told The Times. The decision was to cater to federal employees, like TSA and Coasties, who may not be able to come in during the day. The Food Pantry hours are Saturdays from 10 to noon, Mondays and Wednesdays from 2 to 4 pm, and now Thursdays from 5:30 to 7 pm, all at the Stone Church on Church and Williams Street in Vineyard Haven.

One of Hannemann’s largest concerns is supply.

“All the big food banks in Massachusetts had a meeting earlier this week to talk about how to secure their supply, and what happens if there’s a pullback of money. All food banks get a lot of federal support. We’re concerned,” Hannemann said. “January through March is when we have a hard time keeping up with the demand anyways.”

The Island Food Pantry receives about 80 percent of its food from the Greater Boston Food Bank. They make orders to two of their locations, one in Harwich, the other in New Bedford.

“We have the opportunity to make extra trips to get more food if we need to,” Hannemann said. “I think we’ll be able to keep up. We’re poised to be ready to add to the food supply if we need to.”

The other 20 percent of the Island Food Pantry’s supply comes from donation boxes. Hannemann emphasized the importance of making donations. The pantry also gets produce from Cronig’s, and surplus meats from Stop & Shop.

Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is another branch of Massachusetts federally funded food assistance. WIC provides healthy foods, nutrition education, breastfeeding support, and free referrals to healthcare services to qualifying individuals, according to mass.gov. The program, like SNAP, remains unaffected for now, but it could be left in the lurch come March if the government doesn’t reopen.

People can still apply for SNAP after Jan. 20, but they’re not guaranteed benefits.

Here’s a link to a food-access map: bit.ly/MV_food_access.