More West Virginians will likely go hungry this fall, after lawmakers failed to extend a program for emergency food assistance.
As many as 24,000 adult West Virginians could be pushed off of the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, starting in October, if they can’t prove they’re working at least 20 hours a week.
Some people associate SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, with the unemployed. But the people most likely to be affected are those struggling with a lack of transportation or unstable work hours. Working poor families are among one of largest groups Cyndi Kirkhart serves as director of Facing Hunger Food Bank in Huntington.
“People want to work,” said Kirkhart, who has been at the food bank since 2014. “Long gone are the days of lots of jobs that pay benefits and are 40 hours a week.”
West Virginians go hungry at a higher rate than almost anywhere else in the country. The state is fourth in the nation for residents using emergency food assistance, like SNAP, to purchase groceries. Currently, 166,000 West Virginia households receive SNAP.
Over the last year, West Virginia lawmakers have turned their attention to the state’s hunger problem, a move praised by anti-hunger advocates, including Kirkhart. A new anti-hunger workgroup pushed for a multimillion-dollar CARES Act investment to food banks and pantries, and the group backed a bill moving through the Legislature that would help feed students outside of school hours.
But these positive changes are coupled with lawmakers’ failure to act on addressing the upcoming end to SNAP benefits for thousands of West Virginians, a move that will likely push more adults onto the state’s already struggling food charities, like church pantries and hot meal programs.
SNAP changes under 2018 legislation
The impending welfare changes are due to a 2018 law that overhauled the state’s use of SNAP.
The measure, billed as a way to combat benefits fraud, requires SNAP recipients who are “able-bodied adults without dependents” to prove they are working or training for at least 20 hours a week or benefits are cut off after three months. It was introduced by Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, who didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
The law change was meant to push people into the workforce, a continuation of an earlier state pilot program that was rolled out in several counties, despite evidence that the approach didn’t work.
“Our best data,” the state Department of Health and Human Resources reported at the time, “does not indicate that [limiting SNAP benefits] has had a significant impact on employment figures.”
Instead, people were kicked out of the program. In January 2020, the struggles of some West Virginians to get enough work to hold on to the benefits was highlighted nationally. By the next month, DHHR reported 8,093 SNAP recipients lost their benefits across 17 counties due to not meeting the work requirement.
And Kirkhart – whose food bank served many of those counties – grappled with a sharp wave of people in need of food. Pantries nearly buckled under the burden, she recalled.
“[People] started going to more than one pantry,” she said. “Suddenly, because of the lack of benefits, they needed more food.”
But some adults have been able to stay on the program since 2018, because the law also allowed the state to waive that three-month benefit cap for people in counties with high unemployment — which is the situation in more than half of West Virginia counties. The federal government also put a temporary ban on cutting off benefits nationwide during the pandemic.
As the pandemic wanes, the federal ban will likely be lifted. And West Virginia’s ability to waive the benefit cap in any county expires under the current law on Oct. 1.
This session, a bill sponsored by Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, would have gotten rid of the October deadline. But it died; lawmakers didn’t even bring it before one committee for discussion.
Lawmakers turn attention to child hunger
While lawmakers haven’t acted on feeding hungry adults, they have moved legislation focused on feeding hungry kids. The Emergency School Food Act aims to improve feeding students when they’re out of school due to emergencies, like the pandemic. It has passed the House and is currently awaiting consideration in the Senate.
Child hunger rates in West Virginia are high: One in four children doesn’t have enough to eat. Every school in the state offers free breakfast and lunch to all students. But during remote learning, some counties struggled to reach students who didn’t have a way to pick up free food boxes from schools.
Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, has attempted to run student feeding legislation for years.
The current version would require counties to collect information on how many students can’t access food when they’re out of school.
“It has zero cost because the [West Virginia Department of Education] Office of Child Nutrition says they’re willing to take this one on,” Lovejoy said.
The legislation’s sponsors include several members of the House’s new bipartisan anti-hunger workgroup. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw formed the group in June; a press release said the effort would be “dedicated to utilizing every tool at West Virginia’s disposal to help reduce hunger throughout the state.”
But Lovejoy, the working group’s co-chair, said rather than spearheading efforts to expand food assistance this session, members decided to focus on making sure the Legislature didn’t pass any new barriers.
“[The work group’s] request … was no more barrier bills, like drug testing,” Lovejoy said, referring to a measure lawmakers passed last year to continue drug-testing applicants for an emergency cash assistance program that can be used to purchase food.
Lovejoy said he was aware of the impending SNAP changes this fall, but knew it was unlikely the largely-Republican Legislature would roll back any existing barriers to food assistance, he said.
A spokesperson for Hanshaw declined a request for comment.
The group also secured $7.25 million in CARES Act money for food banks, food pantries and homeless shelters across the state.
At Facing Hunger Food Bank, Kirkhart is again bracing for a wave of people when the new SNAP guidelines go into effect.
“I expect and have planned with our budget to meet the demand that we know is coming,” she said.
The state’s charitable food network has already been hit hard by the pandemic and increasing food prices. Kirkhart said that at the height of the pandemic, the food bank saw a 50% increase in need, and need was still above average this year. Mountaineer Food Bank, which serves 48 counties, reported a 30% increase in need during the pandemic.
Even with the extra CARES Act money, lawmakers and advocates both say food bank funding is a short-term fix.
“At some point, the [legislative] body wants to see results,” said Delegate Larry Pack, R-Kanawha, co-chair of the anti-hunger workgroup. “We have to come up with some type of accountability and results.”
Seth DiStefano, policy outreach coordinator for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy said larger policy change is needed, and called on Gov. Jim Justice to address the end of the SNAP waiver program in a special session.
“To be clear, the charitable food network cannot fill the gap here,” DiStefano said. “When the charitable food network runs out of supply because of this policy, kids, seniors, and families will get turned away.”
If you are a West Virginia resident who uses emergency food assistance, including SNAP or TANF, we’d love to hear about your experience as we continue to report on hunger. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.