Washtenaw United: Hunger issues grow in Washtenaw County as additional SNAP benefits end
ABOUT MARKELL MILLER:
Markell is the Director of Community of Food Programs at Food Gatherers, the food bank serving Washtenaw County. In her role, she leads the Community Food Programs Department at Food Gatherers, which is responsible for the food bank’s relationships with partner agencies, direct service food programs, SNAP outreach, nutrition and health initiatives, research and evaluation, and policy advocacy.
Before moving to Michigan, Markell worked in public health nutrition research and policy advocacy in California, and prior to that was a pastry chef. Markell has her Master of Public Health degree from University of California Berkeley and her Bachelor of Engineering degree from Stanford University.
Markell joined Food Gatherers in 2013.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'd like to thank you for dropping in and spending some time with us today. I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. It is our weekly look at equity and opportunity in our community. For some, the next meal is all but assured, and that is certainly not a fact for everyone. All too many have to worry about providing food for themselves and their family and require some assistance along the way. Now, during the pandemic, the federal government increased funding and benefits offered through SNAP. That's the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But, as of March 31st, those additional benefits expired. Our guest today is Markell Miller, and she is director of community food programs at Food Gatherers. She's here today to help us understand the ramifications and what comes next. Markell, thank you so much for making time.
Markell Miller: Hello. Thanks, David. Thanks for having me.
David Fair: When you look at potential and real ramifications, are you worried?
Markell Miller: Absolutely. This is going to be impacting our community in several ways here. Many families and individuals were able to get additional SNAP benefits during the pandemic because of action Congress took. And those benefits were so helpful for families and individuals to be able to buy the foods they needed, have choice at the grocery store, get those healthier items that can sometimes cost more. And we all know that food prices have gone up significantly last year and have stayed high.
David Fair: Now, I've heard some say that because we've moved from pandemic to endemic, that the additional benefits are really no longer necessary now. I'm not sure they took into account what you just mentioned, and that is food prices. Would I be right in thinking that perhaps the increased assistance may not have even covered the cost of price increases for some?
Markell Miller: Absolutely. And many people have still struggled to make ends meet. SNAP is the supplemental program, even when a family's getting the maximum amount as they were during the last three years, it often is not enough. And they have to, you know, purchase food or visit a food pantry if their budgets are tight, which often happens for many people. If they're struggling to purchase food, they're often struggling with other payments: utility assistance, gas, and things like that. And so, when someone is struggling to make ends meet, they have to make trade-offs. And so, we are there as a network of, you know, food banks serving the community through our network of amazing food pantries and community partners. So, that way, if a neighbor finds themselves needing food, they have a place to go. But we can't do it alone. We are there to complement SNAP. And SNAP is such a critical way that our community can respond to food insecurity. And these benefits help households. But they also go right back into our community when if someone has SNAP, they're purchasing from a grocery store. So, we estimate that our county, Washtenaw County, is losing $2.5 million in benefits.
David Fair: That's a lot of food.
Markell Miller: Yeah, exactly.
David Fair: And, you know, funding for programs for breakfast and lunches for schoolchildren saw a boost during the pandemic, even when the schools were shut down. Are there going to be additional impacts there?
Markell Miller: Absolutely. So, there were free meals for all school students during the pandemic, to-go meals, lots of flexibilities--all of those things have expired as well. And so, we are back to families trying to navigate a network of programs, determine if they're eligible, if they're not eligible, what other assistance is there and how to make ends meet.
David Fair: WEMU's Washtenaw United and our conversation with Markell Miller from Food Gatherers continues. Now, I know that you knew the date that SNAP additional benefits were going to come to an end, and I'm sure you were hopeful there would be an extension. There was not. So, what plans did you work towards at Food Gatherers and with your partner organizations to deal with the anticipated increase in both need and demand?
Markell Miller: Absolutely. So, we're doing two things. We're wanting to make sure that everyone knows this is happening, right? We don't want people to be caught off guard because this change in benefits is not determined by an individual household. It was a statewide change because of Congress, not because of a decision that Michigan Department of Health and Human Services made or the Michigan state Legislature made. Because this was a statewide change, people weren't going to get a letter in the mail notifying them. So, we wanted to make sure that people got word. We put a lot of information out on our social media. We passed out fliers in multiple languages. We wanted to make sure people were preparing for this, and they knew that all of their information was up-to-date. That way they were getting the maximum amount that they're eligible for. The second part is making sure we have enough food. So, we're, you know, making sure we have enough food here in our building. We're fundraising to make sure we can purchase extra food, because when there's a gap in supply, you know, we get wonderful donations from our grocery store partners, but they're given the most that they can give. And then, we get some food from the government. But that's a small percentage of our total food. So, when we need extra food, we buy it. And so, we're purchasing more produce. We're purchasing more dairy, meat, shelf table items. And that way, we're here and ready to respond when one of our partner pantries says we need more resources.
David Fair: Resourceful partnership. It's vital to finding and providing what is needed. I think Washtenaw County probably does better than most in creating such relationships. How have the various organizations that you work with learn to build upon each other's strengths to not only identify and address need, but to do so with efficiency?
Markell Miller: That's a fantastic question, and we do a remarkable job here in Washtenaw County. I'm glad you you recognize that. So, in here in Washtenaw County, we have a wonderful network of social service partners and faith groups and community groups, schools, public agencies, like the health department, and the county all working together to make sure people, when they connect with an agency looking for help, they get immediate help. But then, they also we get connected to additional resources. There's no one place in town that handles everything, so we all work really closely together to make sure we can, you know, compassionately help that person right in front of you and then connect them to other things. Usually, those are emergency services, but we also want to connect people to other federal or state benefits they might be eligible for. Many people, particularly if you're in a circumstance that's happening to you for the first time, you might not know what resources are out there. And so, there's a lot of community education in Washtenaw County to make sure providers know what resources are available, both federal resources, but also local community resources.
David Fair: Once again, you're listening to Washtenaw United on 89 one WEMU. We're talking with Markell Miller from Food Gatherers. Now, I want to dive into what is a big bureaucracy. There are obviously gaps that organizations like yours try and fill. Do you think there are policy adjustments at any or all levels of government that would better help address hunger and nutrition issues?
Markell Miller: Well, there certainly are, and there's always just a different strategy and tact for how people see those challenges being addressed. Our primary priority is always making sure SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is a protected and well-funded and well-resourced and that people can access those benefits if they're eligible. But you hit on a good point. Not everyone is eligible. And we see that definitely here in Washtenaw County. When you live in a higher cost of living area, there's higher wages and higher incomes. But that can mean someone is still struggling to make ends meet, and they're ineligible for federal programs like SNAP. So, we try to fill in those gaps. One policy solution we'd like to see is an increase in the minimum benefit for SNAP for people, particularly if there's a senior in the household or person with a disability because of additional income they may get through Social Security. Oftentimes, they only get the minimum amount of SNAP, which is just $23 a month. And we know that their costs for food are going to be higher, especially if they have health needs. So, that would be wonderful to see an increase in the minimum for those particular households. But, of course, there's a, you know, a big budget lift to get that passed at the state or federal level. But we always want to make sure our elected officials know about that gap in resources, particularly for those vulnerable households.
David Fair: Do you see the will in the new Democratically-controlled state Legislature to make some advancement on these matters in the two-year session that we haven't seen in some of the prior administrations?
Markell Miller: Absolutely. And we're definitely seeing interest. And there's already a bill happening right now. Senator Irwin has introduced a bill, SB 35, to remove the asset test for SNAP here in Michigan. This is not required by Congress. It's not required by the US Department of Agriculture who administers SNAP. This is something that our Legislature added, and the asset test we know can disproportionately impact senior households, working families, people who find themselves temporarily needing SNAP to help them make ends meet. But, if they have assets, like a savings account to make sure they can pay three month's rent, they may find themselves ineligible for SNAP. And we want to make sure SNAP is there for people when they need it. Many people, particularly working families, are not on SNAP that long, and others who stay on SNAP longer are families with fixed incomes, like seniors or people with disabilities. And we want to make sure that they have that financial safety net in place to help them stay housed, to stay healthy. And removing that asset test will be a huge benefit for families and households in Michigan.
David Fair: I know you've never worked as a prognosticator, but based on what you see today and what you anticipate, if you and I sit down again a year from now, will we be any better off when it comes to addressing hunger, food access, and nutrition?
Markell Miller: I am optimistic, even if I am still a realist. I think we're going to see movement here in Michigan. And I'm also optimistic at the federal level that we will get a strong farm bill that strengthens SNAP, protects SNAP, and helps provide additional resources for emergency hunger relief, like food banks and our food pantry partners through a specific program there. So, I'm optimistic. I think every community has been impacted by hunger during the pandemic. Every community still sees the high cost of food, and they understand how easy it is for a family to go from stability to uncertainty with an unexpected job loss or health care issue. And so, we have that opportunity here and a lesson from the pandemic to make sure that our state and federal policies are looking out for everyone in those uncertain times.
David Fair: Well, thank you for spending the time with me today and sharing your insights. I appreciate it.
Markell Miller: Well, thank you. I've enjoyed being here.
David Fair: That is Markell Miller addressing the end of the additional SNAP benefits that were made available during the pandemic and what it's going to mean as we move forward. If you'd like more information, all you have to do is visit our web site at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United. It's produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
Food Gatherers is a recent recipient of United Way’s Emergency Food Assistance Grants.
These organizations worked around the clock to aid families impacted by the effects of the pandemic and inflation. UWWC has awarded a total of $16,000 to the three local nonprofits.
If you are or know someone that needs help, call United Way’s 211 helpline to be connected to resources closer to your residence. For a complete list of food pantries in the area visit: https://www.foodgatherers.org/foodresources
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
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