A Mobil Food Mart in Hartford that accepts SNAP benefits. Julia Werth / CTMirror.org

Washington — With no end to the federal shutdown in sight, anti-hunger advocates are becoming anxious about the fate of federal nutrition programs like food stamps, school lunches, and other programs for the poor that are run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA, which is one of the federal agencies shuttered as a result of the partial shutdown, has told Connecticut officials it has funding for these programs through January, but if the shutdown persists the agency might not be able to continue to subsidize the programs through the entire month of February.

Besides funding the popular Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that provides food stamps to more than 384,000 individuals in 215,000 Connecticut households, the USDA is responsible for several other, smaller nutrition programs that help feed the elderly and pregnant women and children.

About 2,480 low-income Connecticut residents age 60 and older receive packages of canned fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, bottled juice, powdered milk, cheese, peanut butter and other food items through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program.

Another program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program, helps supplement the diets of low-income Americans by providing them with emergency food and nutrition assistance at no cost, usually through food banks and food pantries. In 2018, Connecticut received about 6.6 million pounds of food from this USDA program.

The USDA also administers the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children that provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant women, new mothers and infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

Federal money for WIC has already dried up, and the Connecticut Department of Public Health, which administers the program, did not respond to questions about the program’s status.

Federal funding for school breakfast and lunch programs may also be halted.

“It is unconscionable to hold hostage programs like SNAP, WIC, and school meals that are essential to the nutrition, health, development, learning, and well-being of tens of millions of Americans,” said James Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center.

“The Trump Administration has been less than forthcoming about how long these critical safety net benefits can and will be provided, but the specter of cut-offs starting in February is causing increasing fear and confusion,” he added.

The USDA and a number of other federal agencies are shuttered because congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump could not agree on funding for the president’s signature campaign promise of a border wall between the United States and Mexico

The USDA did not return calls on the status of the funding of its nutrition programs.

But the day after Christmas, the USDA wrote to the agencies that administer the programs in Connecticut, saying food purchased before the shutdown, which began on Dec. 22, would be delivered to the Commodity Supplemental Food Program for the elderly and the emergency food assistance program that helps stock the shelves of more than 500 food pantries in Connecticut.

The USDA letter also said that if Congress and the White House did not come to an agreement to end the shutdown, state agencies may choose to continue the programs by spending their own money “with the understanding that funding will not be provided without an appropriations act.”

“Once federal funding becomes available, food distribution program costs incurred during this lapse may be eligible for federal reimbursement only to the extent that the programs were administered in accordance with Federal statute and regulations,” the USDA letter said.

DeLauro demands answers on fate of food stamps

The USDA also addressed the status of the food stamp program, saying “SNAP will continue operations and eligible households will receive monthly benefits for January.”

“We understand the uncertainty that these circumstances present for USDA Food and Nutrition Service customers and partners nationwide,” the USDA said in its letter dated Dec. 26. “Effective today, many FNS staff will be furloughed pending reinstatement of funding by Congress, and will not be available by phone or email. They cannot carry out normal work functions until funding is restored.”

Households that received SNAP assistance had an average household income of about $813 a month in 2016. The average SNAP benefit per household was about $249 a month.

Unlike smaller nutrition programs, the cost of the food stamp program is too great for states to take over, even temporarily, prompting Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, to say SNAP “is on the precipice of massive benefits cuts.”

“If that happens, people will go hungry—children, veterans, seniors —all because of a tantrum by the president,” DeLauro said. “That is unimaginably cruel.”

On Tuesday, dozens of House Democrats, including DeLauro, wrote USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue demanding to know what would happen to the food stamp program after the end of the month if the shutdown continues.

In their letter, the lawmakers said the USDA received $3 billion worth of reserve funding for SNAP in the 2018 budget bill, but “estimations based on program participation suggest this amount would fail to provide all recipients with full benefits even for the month of February.”

“In this scenario, where federal funds are unable to cover full benefit costs, the law requires USDA to instruct SNAP state agencies on how to ration available funding among SNAP recipients. To date, it remains unclear how such benefit reductions will be carried out,” the lawmakers wrote.

They demanded Perdue outline the USDA’s specific plans for administering SNAP after January 2019 and explain how USDA would instruct state agencies to reduce SNAP benefits for the month of February and beyond.

The lawmakers also asked Perdue to detail “what methods will be used to determine benefit reductions on a per recipient basis?” and to address reports that retailers who wanted to participate in the SNAP program were not having their applications processed.

Meanwhile, there has been no movement on an agreement that would fund the USDA and the other agencies for the rest of the federal fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30.

House Democrats plan to begin holding votes on individual bills that would open the closed agencies this week, beginning with the U.S. Treasury Department.

But Trump says he will not sign an appropriations bill that does not contain money for his wall. And he does not appear to be bending at all on that demand.

The president plans to address the nation Tuesday evening “on the humanitarian and national security crisis on our Southern border” and travel later in the week to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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