Island food insecurity rises as extra SNAP benefits are set to expire

The number of Vineyarders registered with the Island Food Pantry has quadrupled since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Island Food Pantry has seen a significant increase in registrants since the onset of the pandemic. — MV Times

As of March 2, Massachusetts residents receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits will see a significant decrease in their monthly federal funds, and that’s worrying local aid workers who are already seeing a significant increase in demand. 

A federal economic package is set to discontinue the extra SNAP benefits that first became available in March 2020 to help offset economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The expiration of the extra benefits, which goes into effect three months before the end of the federal public health emergency, takes place as food insecurity continues to increase statewide.

The Vineyard is no exception. 

Currently, the Island Food Pantry, run by Island Grown Initiative (IGI), is experiencing an “unprecedented demand,” IGI Executive Director Rebecca Haag said in a recent radio interview with WCAI Radio.

She said that as of 2023, 3,200 Islanders have registered for assistance from the pantry — almost 15 percent of the Martha’s Vineyard population. 

The number of Islanders using IGI’s food pantry is nearly double that of 2022, and more than quadrupled from 2019

A number of factors have contributed to demand, including inflation, and the Vineyard’s geographical location. Also, many pantry users are seniors, often on fixed incomes, and some who lack access to transportation.

To help meet the demand, IGI has introduced prepared meals to help supplement the groceries offered by the pantry. In December, IGI announced its purchase of the Kitchen Porch in Edgartown to enhance its growing food equity network. 

Winter on the Vineyard is “a really difficult time,” Haag told WCAI. “It’s not just the tourist industry — it’s the farmers, the fishermen, the landscapers . . . People try to earn on the Cape and Islands in 10 months what they need to feed their families in 12.”

Since March 2020, 630,000 Massachusetts residents have had access to the additional SNAP dollars to help mitigate the economic impacts of COVID-19. Those additional funds totalled around $90 million per month — around $1 billion annually. 

State officials are now looking for creative solutions on the state level to address the potential fallout from the short-norticed cuts. 

Gov. Maura Healey has since proposed using “repurposed enhanced federal Medicaid reimbursements” to replace the discontinued aid. That proposal would offer residents who rely on SNAP 40 percent of what they received in additional benefits.

In a press release issued last week, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute’s Victoria Negus said, “Having those three extra months of boosted allotments, even at the 40 percent rate that was proposed, will give families time they need to save and make case changes to maximize federal SNAP benefits.” 

As of Feb. 21, that proposal has not yet gained traction.

“SNAP benefit amounts are tied to factors such as income, housing or shelter costs, child care, and if you have children, a disability or someone in your household over 60 years old,” Negus said in the release; “The reality of these boosted payments during the pandemic is that SNAP has been able to meet more of a family’s food costs in a month. It’s really driven down food insecurity and increased the ability of families to make the healthiest choices for them, because they have had the dollars to do so.”

On the impacts the cut will have on Massachusetts residents, Negus said “some demographics will feel the impact of the cliff to a greater degree than other families will.”