Over recent days many churches and schools have collected canned goods to provide Thanksgiving meals to people who cannot afford a feast. On Thursday hundreds of New Yorkers will volunteer at soup kitchens and church basements to help serve the holiday dinner to the homeless and others. These are wonderful efforts, but the people involved largely understand them as one-day gestures toward a 365-day-a-year problem.
Fully 1.2 million New Yorkers are food insecure—meaning they lack consistent access to enough healthy food for an active life—at some point in the year, and that point isn’t necessarily confined to the fourth Thursday of November.
There is a more consistent resource for New Yorkers at risk of malnutrition: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps.” But two reports out this week indicate that program is failing to help as much as it should.
The Food Bank for New York City reports that a November 2013 nationwide cut in SNAP benefits has had serious consequences for New York City recipients. The average monthly SNAP benefit in the city is now $21 less than it was in 2013, even though prices have risen 6 percent overall since then. Taken together, the Food Bank says, the cuts to SNAP have reduced benefits to New Yorkers by a total of $770 million. Since SNAP-funded purchases generate other economic activity—SNAP shoppers buy food, so grocery stores pay staff, who use their wages to buy other stuff, and so on—there is a multiplier effect: The Food Bank estimates that the overall impact of the cuts has been $1.3 billion.
This loss has had an impact elsewhere in the nutrition safety net. Food pantries surveyed by the Food Bank indicate 60 percent of their customers receive SNAP benefits but use the pantries to supplement those purchases. And 56 percent of pantries tell the Food Bank that they have at some point in the last year run out of food, an increase over the 49 percent who reported that problem in 2015 and 2016.
Not surprisingly, the problem of decreasing SNAP benefits affects some parts of the city far more than others. In the combined statistical area of Bronx community boards 3 and 6 (encompassing the communities of Crotona Park, Claremont Village, Concourse Village, Woodstock, Morrisania, Belmont, Bathgate, West Farms, East Tremont, and Bronx Park South), 47 percent of people receive SNAP. Only 3 percent of people in Manhattan board 8 (Upper East Side, LenoxHill, Yorkville, and Roosevelt Island) get the benefits.
Those penetration numbers conceal a separate problem: people who are eligible for SNAP but don’t get it. A new Poverty Tracker report by the Robin Hood Foundation indicates one in four eligible New Yorkers doesn’t get SNAP—equal to about 700,000 people, a population greater than that of Denver or Boston, Wyoming or Vermont.
The limited reach of SNAP is a well-known, long-standing problem but Robin Hood reveals key data about what the missing recipients look like. Living in a low-poverty neighborhood makes your 25 percent less likely to enroll; being single makes you about 9 percent less likely to sign up. Eligible people aged 18 to 29 and folks who don’t have kids sign up less frequently, as are the foreign-born and women.
Taken together, the challenges mapped by the Food Bank and Robin Hood are part of an under-covered story of the de Blasio era: The fact that the number of SNAP recipients has fallen by nearly 11 percent during this administration, from 1.86 million in October 2013 to 1.66 million last month.
They also set the stage for a legislative showdown over the future of nutrition assistance across the United States. A new federal farm bill is expected to work its way through Congress in the spring of 2018.