Advocates worry more Virginians could experience food insecurity if Congress cannot pass an updated farm bill or emergency appropriation.

Nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often referred to as food stamps, are funded through a piece of federal legislation often called the farm bill – which covers focus areas from crops and livestock to rural development and access to food. SNAP makes up about 80% of its funding.

This story was reported and written Capital News Service

Several farm bill programs are slated to expire at the end of September. Eddie Oliver, the executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, stated in an email that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed SNAP benefits will be distributed in October regardless of a farm bill’s passage.

“My understanding is that the authorized spending levels remain in effect,” Oliver stated.

The USDA helped appropriate emergency funding for the SNAP program in 2013 until Congress passed that farm bill. Such intervention could potentially occur now if this deadline is not met, but Oliver stated the future beyond October is still unclear – and expressed concerns over a potential government shutdown affecting benefits.

Increase in benefits need, and food costs

Just under 850,000 Virginians received SNAP benefits in June, according to the USDA. This means about 30,000 additional persons have enrolled since June 2022.

“There’s really nothing more essential to the basic well-being and dignity of a family than having enough food to put on the table,” Oliver said.

SNAP benefits in 78% of U.S. counties cannot cover the cost of a moderately priced meal, according to a 2022 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study

“No one can truly live well off of the SNAP program,” Oliver said. 

A recent Urban Institute study found the average cost of a meal in Richmond is $3.54, whereas the average amount a SNAP recipient can spend on a meal is $2.73 – leaving a 30% gap families still need to fill.

SNAP benefits are meant to cover 9 out of 10 meals, while food banks take care of one, according to Oliver. However, this has not been the case as of late, as lacking benefits are not able to keep up.

“While food banks and food pantries are an essential part of the solution, we can’t do it all,” he said.

The farm bill is usually bipartisan, as its extensive reach can be felt by all, Oliver said. However, there is growing concern that the legislation may be delayed or experience funding cuts due to debate between lawmakers – such as a Republican legislator saying the SNAP program needed to be “curtailed” due to being “one of the largest government handout programs.”

Oliver stated there is no available text for the 2023 Farm Bill at the time of this report, and some lawmakers expressed frustration to him about it. The farm bill is “one of the most important pieces of legislation” and represents a “holistic approach” to food access, according to Oliver. 

The reality for Virginians is that this legislation, should it be slowed or its funding for SNAP altered, will have local effects – and struggling food banks will feel it, according to Oliver.

“The slightest cut to the SNAP program will fall on us,” Oliver said.

Food banks bridge growing gap

Food banks statewide attempt to bridge the gap between where hunger begins and government assistance programs end. But many representatives say the strain on food banks is taking its toll.

Nearly 300 new families have visited the Colonial Heights Food Pantry since July 1, according to Warren Hammonds, its executive director and only full-time employee. Many are homeless or experiencing emergencies.

 “I wish we didn’t have to feed this many families,” Hammonds said, but he is glad they can help meet needs.

The “ugliness” of food insecurity has grown worse in recent years, according to Hammonds.

“It’s almost painful to get a hug and have people just bawl, crying on your shoulder after you give ‘em food because they didn’t know what else to feel,” he said.

The food pantry used to provide for about 3-5 homeless families a month. Now, nearly 20 families visit each week, something Hammond said reflects a “terrible” and “daunting” reality.

“Sometimes I use the word ‘sobering,’” he said. “Sometimes I just cry about it.”

Many homeless families receive temporary housing within local hotels, where they likely do not have access to a stove or other means of food preparation, according to Hammonds, who said the pantry spent an additional $10,000 in the past year to help meet their unique food needs. 

“We have the resources today,” Hammonds said, “but we may not have the resources in a year.”

At least half a million dollars in additional funding is needed to feed food insecure Virginians, based on 2021 data from Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks. Rising inflation and growing food costs make this deficit harder to address, with the U.S. Consumer Price Index for food rising over 4% since last August – on top of an 11% jump the previous year.

Breanne Armbrust, executive director of the Neighborhood Resource Center of Greater Fulton in Richmond, said community organizations like hers are often nonprofit and function entirely off of its own community’s donations.

Government assistance programs could be significantly improved to better serve Virginians, Armbrust said.

“More often than not, people that make policy-making decisions do not have the lived experiences of people that need to access these services,” Armbrust said.

The Fulton resource center, among its many programs and functions, helps families apply for services like SNAP. 

The process can be lengthy, confusing and even impossible for some without a helping hand, Armbrust said. Not everyone has access to a home computer or transportation to their local social services office. The hours of work a family might put into an application could still only result in benefits as low as $27 a month, Armbrust said.

“Imagine if you didn’t know where you were gonna get your food from, and you don’t know how you’re gonna pay your bills, and what that does to a person,” Armbrust said. “Then you expect them to jump through a bunch of hoops to maybe get a benefit.”

These services need to become more accessible, especially because of how easy it is to find oneself in this situation, Armbrust said.

“It's not ‘these people over here’ that are receiving benefits,” she said. “It could be any of us, and it very well may be all of us one day.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.