By NOAH TABORDA
TOPEKA — Haley Kottler sees firsthand desperation of young families struggling to put food on the table as the economy wilts under the COVID-19 pandemic.
She understands the lifeline offered by the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that delivers food benefits nationwide.
“Families often depend on school lunches, and SNAP picks up the slack without them,” Kottler said. “I know a single mother who was able to continue to pay her utilities and keep the internet on so her daughter could continue her schoolwork because of the flexibility provided.”
Kotter works for Kansas Appleseed, a statewide advocacy group working to provide access to affordable food and housing. She said when Gov. Laura Kelly closed schools to slow the spread of COVID-19, it left many families requiring extra assistance from programs like SNAP.
SNAP affords qualifying low-income families targeted and temporary food benefits to get them through difficult periods. It is also known as the Food Assistance Program in Kansas.
Amid the pandemic, food insecurity rates are rising and the number of SNAP recipients in Kansas has skyrocketed from just under 190,000 in February to over 213,000 in June, a more than 12% increase. Expenditures rose to nearly $40 million in the month of June, a 95% increase.
Numbers nationwide have followed suit, with more than 54 million people expected to experience food insecurity due to COVID-19.
“We’ve seen millions of people across the county struggling to put food on the table, as unemployment rises and food prices increase, turning to SNAP,” said Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research and Action Center, during a panel discussion Wednesday on the importance of increasing SNAP program boosts.
Last month, 2,500 organizations from every state signed a letter asking Congress to boost the maximum snap benefit by 15% and to increase the minimum monthly benefit from $16 to $30. Kottler joined Guardia and several other advocates from across the United States to voice displeasure for a lack of such action in the US. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s latest proposed COVID-19 relief package.
“With the uncertainty surrounding school scheduling, unemployment payments set to drop from $600 back to $200, this crisis will only continue to worsen, and more families will turn to SNAP,” Kottler said. “We need deep investment and care in the program as the situation potentially worsens.”
According to the Feeding America study “The Impact of Coronavirus on Food Insecurity,” Kansas’ projected overall food insecurity rate for 2020 is 17.7%. That marks a 5% increase since 2018.
Karen Siebert, public policy and advocacy adviser for Harvester’s — The Community Food Network, a food bank serving 16 counties in Kansas, said these numbers are troubling for organizations like hers.
“Our agencies have seen an average 40% increase in those coming in for help since the pandemic began,” Siebert said. “The problem isn’t going away for these people, and these supports, like unemployment, are all falling away. We’re worried we’ll see another influx of people.”
From the 2019 fiscal year to fiscal year 2020, Harvesters saw a 20% increase in the amount of food distributed. In addition, as food donations plummeted, Harvesters spent $1.8 million during the 2020 fiscal year, as opposed to just $100,000 in 2019, Siebert said.
Harvesters’ was prepared for the initial rush of pandemic food need, but for food banks who rely on donations and volunteers, continued demand at this rate is not a viable business model.
“We need our volunteers to help repackage foods so we can send them out to families, but many of them are at-risk, or we just can’t use them in the same way,” Siebert said. “Our entire business model has been upended.”
That is why Siebert and Harvester’s, a private charity, are staunch advocates for public programs like SNAP. Siebert said for every meal they provide, SNAP can provide nine.
“SNAP is a lifeline for so many Kansans,” Kottler said. “We need to do more because it’s the best way we can mitigate hunger in Kansas.”
Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.