Gov’t Shutdown Leaves Columbia County Scrambling to Fulfill SNAP Benefits

A majority of the 2.7 million New Yorkers who buy food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) received their February benefits more than two weeks early Thursday to avoid the federal program’s funding cut-off as the partial government shutdown nears the one-month mark.

This includes many of the 5,400 SNAP recipients in Columbia County, where the county’s Department of Social Services is scrambling to figure out how to fund March’s SNAP benefits if the shutdown continues.

SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps,” is funded through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), one of nine federal departments without budgets due to the shutdown, which stems from Congressional Democrats and President Trump disagreeing about whether to include funding for a border wall as part of the bill funding these departments.

The Trump administration authorized SNAP funds to be distributed up to a month after the USDA lost its funding, an option possible under the prior bill temporarily funding these departments, according to Roll Call.

This grace period for SNAP runs out Jan. 20.

Anthony Farmer, a spokesman for the Office of Temporary Assistance (OTA), the state agency which distributes SNAP in New York, called the situation “unprecedented.”

The USDA instructed states the week of Jan. 6 to issue February’s benefits early to avoid the cut-off, Farmer said.

“We’re doing our best to get the word out to people so they are aware that this is coming, and this isn’t any sort of extra or bonus payment they’re receiving, that these are their full benefits for the month of February, and they should plan accordingly based on that,” he said.

“But we haven’t had time to property notify people like we normally would if there was a major change like this happening,” Farmer said, adding the state was working on getting the word out through local Departments of Social Services, community organizations and the media.

Supermarkets in Columbia County and across the state are expecting a spike in customers in the coming days as the early benefits are received.

Hannaford in Valatie

Hannaford Supermarkets, which has two locations in Columbia County, was expecting an influx of customers, according to spokesman Eric Blom, but the stores could handle the traffic, just as they do during other unexpected busy periods, such as before snowstorms.

Price Chopper Supermakets, which has eight locations in the Hudson Valley, including Chatham, was adjusting for a surge of customers, according to spokeswoman Mona Golub.

“[We’ve] sent products out early, and we’ve adjusted labor scheduling in both our warehouses and our stores to accommodate a surge in end-of-the-month business that generally hits at the first of the month,” she said.

Columbia County Department of Social Services Commissioner Robert Gibson agreed he was “concerned” about those on SNAP receiving two months’ benefits in 17 days, then going without another payment until at least March.

“I’m concerned about that, sure,” he said. “We work with [SNAP recipients] with budgeting, that’s all part of the process, but it’s out of the ordinary, so you worry about it – it’s a longer period.”

However, the bigger issue for Gibson’s office was not the early February benefits, but how to get SNAP recipients their March benefits if the shutdown continues.

Gibson was meeting with officials in his office “so that we can come up with some kind of a plan to find a way to get assistance to these folks,” he said.

“I’m making this up as I go, because I’m worried that my clients won’t have what they need,” he added.

A potential plan was to work with New York to get funds for SNAP recipients using state money though some existing public assistance program, he said.

Gibson was unsure if the federal government would reimburse the state for this money, he said, and his office would have to create public assistance files for the 2,000 Columbia Country residents who receive SNAP, but who are not on other forms of public assistance, for this to work.

This would be “very, very involved,” Gibson said.

“But it’s the most orderly and immediate way that we can think of to try to continue to provide these benefits to the clients,” he added.

Already, difficulties with SNAP are forcing employees in Gibson’s office to work overtime, he said.

“That’s obviously going to be an added expense to all this,” he added.

SNAP recipients who must recertify their eligibility in January and have not yet done so will receive their benefits as normal in February if they are still eligible, according to Farmer.

Afterword: Lackadaisical Meetings & The Shutdown

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