Food pantries see usage soar after government cuts pandemic-era emergency benefits

A man loads a paper bag into the backseat of a white SUV. Behind him people walk in and out of a small brick building with a sign over the door that says "Emergency Food Network" carrying gallons of milk.

On Friday afternoon, the Charlottesville Emergency Food Network’s small distribution center was packed with dozens of food orders and families lined up out the door.

Volunteers say the demand for the small pantry’s services has nearly doubled since early March, after the federal government ended the emergency increases it had been giving to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamp) recipients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re getting a lot more people,” said Dana Eastman, a volunteer food distributor. “We went from about 12 to 15 — we have 26 today.”

And the folks arriving appear ever more desperate, said Diane, another volunteer who did not give her last name. People have started showing up early for pickup, concerned that there will not be enough food — even though all customers register in advance and are guaranteed a bag with a three-day food supply.

Other area food pantries are experiencing a similar need.

A woman lifts a paper bag of groceries onto a table filled with dozens of identical bags.
Dana Eastman, a volunteer with the Emergency Food Network in Charlottesville, prepares for a distribution Friday, April 14, 2023.

It’s a sign, pantry workers say, that the emergency COVID-19 funding was addressing a need that has not gone away. 

But the SNAP emergency allotments were only meant to be temporary. The increase was part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020, which directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to max out every SNAP receipt’s benefits “due to pandemic related economic conditions.”

During that time, businesses and schools were closing for the country-wide lockdown, causing many people to lose hours or jobs entirely.

That was certainly the case in central Virginia. Data from local SNAP offices show the number of people in Albemarle County receiving food assistance increased nearly 60% from pre-COVID February 2020 to February 2023. That’s 4,175 to 6,561 people. In Charlottesville, the number of recipients increased by about 30% during that same time period: 3,898 to 5,117.

The reasons people cited were pandemic-related job losses, reduced hours and illness. Basically more people applied due to lack of income, jobs, and/or illness, said Blair Smith, a training supervisor with the Charlottesville Department of Social Services, which distributes SNAP benefits to city residents.

While those issues are no longer as pressing, they’ve been replaced by stubbornly high inflation that brings with it higher food, housing and electricity costs.

“We needed the SNAP [emergency allotments] so badly,” said a woman waiting to pick up a three-day food supply for her family of five from the Emergency Food Network. “We are stretching our dollars for everything, not just food: rent, gas and all the other necessities. We wish [the government] can come up with something more for us. It is hard and we are struggling to make ends meet.”

The allotments also brought to light the number of people who do not qualify for enough food assistance under the normal guidelines to feed their families — and never did.

Loaves and Fishes, a large pantry near Albemarle High School, is seeing the return of people who have not visited during the last two years, said its executive director, Jane Colony Mills. She said it’s a sign that people receiving the COVID-19 allotments were able to purchase all the food they needed. And, without the allotments, they can’t.

The allotments did not affect every SNAP recipient the same. Because the program temporarily gave each recipient the maximum amount of money possible for their household size, the increases varied widely.

William Marshall, an Albemarle County resident, said his benefits dropped by about $25 per month when the allotments stopped. A Charlottesville woman waiting at the Emergency Food Network said her benefits dropped from $200 to $77. Another said her benefits went from $300 to $23.

“When I’ve asked people if they get SNAP, many times I’ve heard, ‘Yeah, $16 a month,’ which means they hardly feel it’s worth the effort to apply,” Colony Mills said.

Two women stand in the doorway of a small shop looking through a shelf with various types of canned foods.
Emergency Food Network volunteer Meghan Cloud, right, works with Region Ten case manager Adrienne Page, left, to pick out food for Page’s client. Jessie Higgins/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Broadly, Colony Mills said she’s now seeing more families with small children. Smith, with the Charlottesville Department of Social Services, said households with elderly, blind and disabled recipients seemed to have larger increases in food assistance during the pandemic.

The woman whose benefits dropped to $77 is disabled and caring for another disabled adult and three children.

“I have nothing in my house right now,” she said, while waiting at the Emergency Food Network. “I am eating beans out of a can right now, trying to piece together a meal each evening using whatever we can find.”

It is impossible to predict whether the continually improving job market will enable families to become more food secure, but pantries like Loaves and Fishes and the Emergency Food Network are settling in for a long time with more people needing their help.

And they say they’re prepared to handle the new demand.

“We have a clear message: No one needs to go without food,” said Zachary Nissen, director of programs for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, which provides food to the pantries. “We are well stocked and prepared to provide food to anyone who needs it.”

If you need emergency food, you can find operating food pantries in your area at this link.

Loaves and Fishes distributes food Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Visit this link for more information about when and how to pick up food.

The Emergency Food Network distributes food by appointment Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Click here for more information.

Both pantries, and the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, accept donations on their websites.

Jessie Higgins contributed to this story.