Amid inflated food prices, NM braces for reduction in SNAP benefits - Albuquerque Journal

Amid inflated food prices, NM braces for reduction in SNAP benefits

David Vigil, an employee at Food Depot, unpacks bags of onions to be handed out to feed thousands of people. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — Even as food prices climb, needy New Mexico families are set to see their benefits drop this spring under the federal program that helps people buy groceries.

Starting in March, the change will have a dramatic impact in New Mexico, where about 24% of the population — 517,000 individuals — will be affected, according to estimates by the Human Services Department.

The average family receiving help under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will see a $161 drop in their monthly benefit, a 30% change. But the amount will vary based on the individual or family’s income level.

“Somehow, families are going to have to wean themselves overnight basically from the extra $161 a month,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said in an interview. “We stand ready to do everything we possibly can to support them and connect them with resources.”

The decrease is tied to the expiration of enhanced federal benefits approved in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. New Mexico, Scrase said, sought as many extensions as it could to keep the emergency benefits intact as long as possible.

Scrase said he is urging families to prepare for the benefits cut, and his agency will request extra funding for food initiatives this session.

Sherry Hooper, executive director of The Food Depot, one of five food banks in New Mexico, said the benefit reduction comes as the cost of some food items jumps 40% above typical levels, adding stress to food banks and families.

“These families — who already have a fairly meager food budget — are not able to stretch their dollar as far as they were,” Hooper said.

Food banks, she said, welcome financial donations, organizations that want to conduct food drives and other help.

“We’re struggling to meet this increased demand,” she said.

Roadrunner Food Bank spokeswoman Faith Schifani said inflation and “escalating food costs have already created a difficult situation for countless families in our state. This will undoubtedly increase the number of people seeking our services.”

Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said he hopes the state can offset the immediate impact of the change and help connect people with job opportunities or training.

“We should do everything in-state to lessen the impact and the reduction in those benefits,” he said, “but there is also a severe need for workers in almost every part of our state, every skill set for every type of job. … That should be something that is a part of the discussion.”

For individuals facing a reduction in benefits, Scrase said, options include buying less expensive food, visiting food banks or picking up more hours at work.

But he said he understands it’s a difficult, consequential change.

The benefit reduction comes as state lawmakers prepare a state spending plan amid a revenue boom.

In the 60-day session starting this week, the Human Services Department and other state agencies will be seeking an infusion of new funding to bolster their budget for food initiatives.

The executive branch is recommending an extra $55.9 million — a mix of recurring and one-time cash that would expand free breakfast and lunch for students at school, send $10 million to help food banks, and extend a $225 monthly benefit for needy seniors and people with disabilities.

“It’s part of the stronger safety net we need so that we can weather future storms, like COVID,” Scrase said.

The expanded programs would also help ensure “kids don’t have to wake up in the morning wondering if they’re going to have enough food to eat that day,” he said, a problem facing about 1 in 5 children in the state.

Marina Piña, spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, said each individual or family receiving SNAP benefits will receive notifications outlining the changes.

Individuals and families should also watch for turquoise envelopes with information on how to renew their benefits.

The state is also bracing for a Medicaid shake-up this year. Starting in May, about 85,000 people in New Mexico are expected to lose their eligibility for full coverage — a change also connected to federal legislation. The eligibility changes will be processed over several months.

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