Struggling New Jersey residents could see their monthly food benefit nearly double under a proposal designed to avoid what advocates describe as a looming “hunger cliff” after federal emergency funding expires in February.
Lawmakers unanimously approved a bill Thursday to establish a $95 minimum monthly allotment to participants in SNAP, the state and federally funded Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program that helps feed nearly 770,000 residents in nearly 400,000 homes.
One in 12 households here face food insecurity, study saysFamilies were receiving a monthly minimum of $95 during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the threshold will be $50, starting March 1. Before the pandemic, some residents were getting as little as $18 a month, advocates said.
“That would be a colossal step backward,” state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), a leader in addressing food insecurity, told the Assembly Human Services Committee before the vote. “What this bill does is recognize that challenge and provide for the state to ensure that floor stays at $95.”
Coughlin’s proposal (A-5086), introduced earlier this month, requires several additional votes and action in the Senate before it can be codified as law. “This makes a difference in so many lives,” he said, adding it would make New Jersey a national leader addressing hunger.
Feeding hungry children
Some 1.4 million New Jersey residents are impacted by food insecurity, including 400,000 children, according to state Assemblyman Reginald Atkins (D-Union), a pastor who runs a food pantry with his wife.
Demand for hot food and groceries is increasing, he said, even among people who have jobs “but need extra help.” Studies show the need varies by race and ethnicity, with Black and Latino residents three and four times more likely to be hungry, respectively, than white people.
Adele LaTourette, senior director of policy and advocacy for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, said the need may be the greatest she’s seen in 40 years, suggesting it was more like the Grand Canyon than just a cliff.
“Food pantries are seeing larger numbers than they served during the pandemic,” she told lawmakers. “Everyone is maxed out. They are really concerned.”
Coughlin has led a bipartisan effort to address hunger in New Jersey, finding ways to recover more of the state’s farm products, increasing funding to food banks and soup kitchens and reducing barriers to SNAP participation. The state has also identified at least 50 food deserts and has a plan to use tax breaks to incentivize grocery stores to open in those communities.
Coughlin spearheads legislation to fight food insecurityIn June, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill that made New Jersey the first state to establish a minimum SNAP benefit, the $50 monthly threshold that takes effect in March, timed to offset the loss of the extra $45 a month, per person, in federal emergency dollars. The change will cost the state $18 million extra a year, according to the Department of Human Services, which oversees the program.
“We understood the extra SNAP benefits were temporary, but we also recognize the impact this will have on New Jerseyans who have benefitted from greater assistance over the last three years,” state Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman said last week.
She urged SNAP recipients visit nj211.org to learn about other assistance they are eligible to receive.
But Coughlin and others said that is no longer enough, given inflation and the end of federal pandemic-related emergency funding — for SNAP and other social service supports. Nearly $3 billion in extra state and federal funding has gone to SNAP participants here since the pandemic began, according to the Department of Human Services, which oversees the program. Participation in the program also grew 23% at the height of the pandemic, according to a report from Hunger Free New Jersey.
“This program right now is facing a hunger cliff,” said Maura Sanders, chief counsel at Legal Services of New Jersey, which advocates for low-income residents. “We’ve been spending sleepless nights worrying about how this is impacting families, individuals, seniors,” she said, noting that working families are at particular risk with how benefits are calculated. Increasing the minimum funding “is essential and really critical right now,” Sanders said.
New Jersey’s SNAP program is already more generous than versions in many other states. It is open to adults earning up to 185% of the federal poverty limit — many states cap it at 130% — which translates to just under $2,100 a month for an individual or $3,550 for a family of three. Benefits are determined by income, assets and certain expenses, and are loaded onto a debit-type card each month.
Some New Jersey residents were receiving as little as $18 a month in SNAP benefits before the pandemic, Coughlin said, so the $50 minimum available as of March is a clear step forward. But the state needs to increase this threshold to $95 to ensure no program participants see their grocery budgets shrink with the loss of federal funds, he said, noting his proposal would directly impact about 46,000 families.
“Imagine every day if you woke up and the first thing you had to do was figure out how to feed your family that day,” Coughlin said. “Not because you forgot to go to the grocery store last night, but because there is nothing in the cupboard.”