Health

February food assistance distributed to Iowans early

Federal shutdown has state officials working on contingency plan

Cases of apples are stacked in a cooler in the food warehouse at HACAP in Hiawatha, Iowa on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. The apples were purchased through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s trade mitigation package. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Cases of apples are stacked in a cooler in the food warehouse at HACAP in Hiawatha, Iowa on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. The apples were purchased through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s trade mitigation package. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Food assistance benefits and programs across the state are in a wait-and-see mode as the federal government shutdown heads into its fourth week.

But if disputes that led to the closures aren’t resolved within the next three weeks, it could be an entirely different prospect for individuals who rely on federal programs to get groceries each week, local and state officials say.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of hardships for a lot of people if there’s no resolution,” said Kim Guardado, director of the food reservoir at Hawkeye Area Community Action Program in Cedar Rapids. “It’s hard to think what that might be like for many families in Eastern Iowa.”

Benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, for February will be dispensed to Iowans on Thursday — earlier than previously expected, the Iowa Department of Human Service announced Wednesday.

More than 335,000 Iowans rely on SNAP — known as Food Assistance in Iowa — totaling up to $37 million in benefits, according to Iowa Department of Human Services data.

Federal funding for the food stamps program is provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The dollars will last until March, thanks to a budget provision the U.S. Department of Agriculture relied on to give states money by Jan. 20 to circumvent the expiration of federal appropriations.

Other programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, will be funded through February as well. WIC served more than 59,000 Iowans in November 2018, according to state data.

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But if the federal shutdown lasts into March, officials cannot guarantee those benefits will continue. The food stamp program has a $3 billion reserve, which would only cover two-thirds of the $4.8 billion in benefits distributed each month, according to a Washington Post article.

Iowa DHS officials are developing contingency plans for the month of March, should the government shutdown continue. Officials with the department declined to comment further on the contingency plans or what they could entail.

“At the Iowa Department of Human Services, we understand the importance of ensuring food security for Iowans in need and will do everything we can to ensure there is as little disruption as possible,” Director Jerry Foxhoven said in a statement.

However, DHS officials are encouraging recipients to “to budget their normal benefits to ensure they last through the month of February.”

In an interview with the Gazette-Lee Des Moines bureau last week, Iowa Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said, “I can’t imagine we wouldn’t assure Iowans that we’ll make sure that they can put food on the table if things in (Washington) D.C. are still going horribly wrong. Iowans deserve to know that they’ll be able to feed their families.”

The Hiawatha-based Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP) — which distributes six million pounds of food annually to 132 not-for-profits and other agencies in Eastern Iowa — also expects their supplies to last through February, Guardado said.

But she noted HACAP officials are hoping for a resolution soon as their inventory — as with the food stamp dollars — eventually will run out.

In September, the USDA announced a new bailout program for farmers affected by the trade disputes between the United States and other countries. Under the Trade Mitigation Programs, the USDA began purchasing $1.2 billion worth of product from farmers and distributing it to food banks across the country.

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The HACAP Food Reservoir was a beneficiary of that federal program. It’s expected to receive more than 1.5 million pounds of food over the life of the program to distribute to its clients in a seven-county area.

Items began arriving last week. So far, Guardado said HACAP has received apples and navy beans from the program. They also expect to receive grapes, pork, potatoes, oranges and more.

HACAP will continue receiving products that were purchased before the government shut down Dec. 22, a supply that is expected to last until March.

Food pantries in Cedar Rapids also have not noticed any changes with their client base.

“We have not seen any major upturn in need at the moment,” said Shalla Ashworth, director of development and communications at the Salvation Army, an organization that offers food pantry services at its northwest neighborhood location in Cedar Rapids.

Salvation Army stafff have not had any discussions about a continued shutdown, noting it’s still too early to tell how it could affect their clients, Ashworth said.

“It’s a waiting game,” Ashworth said. “People are waiting to see what’s going to happen and how long their supplies at home may go. If we’re still sitting in this situation in three weeks, it’ll be a different picture.”

If inventory from the federal Trade Mitigation Programs runs out, HACAP will be unable to make a difference.

“We would not have the budget for that,” Guardado said. “It would a financial hardship for our agency.”

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In that case, Guardado and Ashworth of the Salvation Army said their organizations would turn to the community for support.

“It could have severe effect, but I’m hopeful there will be a resolution before that,” Guardado said.

l Do you or someone you know rely on SNAP or WIC? Are you concerned that the government shutdown could effect these benefits? We’d like to speak to you. Contact reporter Michaela Ramm at (319) 368-8536 or michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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