On Friday morning, Corina Salgado walked the aisles of the Chelsea Market Basket to gather some pantry staples and cheese to make pupusas.
When the cashier scanned the Lactaid-brand milk, a gallon of orange juice, cilantro, garlic, a loaf of wheat bread, and block of feta, the bill came to $19.27.
Salgado pulled out her white and blue SNAP card and swiped.
“I just buy milk, juice, bread. That’s it,” she said as she loaded her car. “I can’t afford to buy more stuff.”
Since the start of the COVID pandemic emergency, Salgado has relied on $230 a month in federal aid to help feed her husband, adult children, and grandchildren. The 63-year-old former nursing assistant, who retired due to knee and back injuries, first applied for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program during the pandemic. The money was a lifeline.
But lately, the $230 has been stretched thinner and thinner. Beans have climbed from $6 to $13 a pound, and the non-dairy milk she drinks costs $6 a carton. Her electric bills are so steep she pays what she can in small increments just to keep the lights on.
And this month, that $230 a month she receives for food will drop to $116, as the SNAP expansion that was designed to help people like Salgado weather COVID ends.
“In my opinion, we need this kind of help,” Salgado said. “Everything is higher.”
Yet the help is melting away.
Three years after the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a nearly unprecedented federal effort to put money in the hands of people who needed it to survive, those programs are rapidly coming to an end. Cash payments. Expanded unemployment benefits. Upfront payment of tax credits for parents and low-income families. Rental assistance. Small-business relief funds. All told, the federal government released $5 trillion in spending that kept the economy afloat and helped people meet their basic needs.
And the latest thread to be pulled from the pandemic-era safety net? Expanded SNAP benefits, still referred to as food stamps by many, that help people pay for food are ending this month, even as many kitchen staples have soared in price.
“People are nervous and scared and wondering how they’re going to make up for this,” said Project Bread’s chief executive Erin McAleer. “It’s just a peeling back of all these supports.”
The impact is already being felt at food pantries across Massachusetts. At La Colaborativa in Chelsea, lines that had averaged 400 people per day swelled to 1,200 last week as families made plans to stockpile food and get ahead of a likely rush later in the month, when benefits typically run lowest, advocates said.
On Friday, the line stretched across the parking lot where the Chelsea nonprofit sets up a food distribution operation twice a week. Salgado was there at 5 a.m. for potatoes, carrots, apples, plantains, rice, corn, and bread — all items she planned to deliver to a friend in Lawrence who doesn’t have the same access to free food. She said people come to Chelsea from all over the region, even from New Hampshire.
Community leaders say the drop-off in SNAP benefits have led to confusion and concern among the neediest, who are already struggling to get by. Meantime, enrollment is up 10,000 in Massachusetts just since the start of the year, as more people wrestle with high food costs. Food insecurity, advocates say, is edging into crisis.
“We’re getting ready for another turn in the wheel with this pandemic,” said Beth Chambers, vice president of basic needs for Catholic Charities Boston, which has seen its client base in Dorchester quadruple since before the pandemic. “We were always thought of as an emergency food pantry, and the word emergency is gone now.”
Those experiencing the drop-off in benefits are among the state’s neediest.
Over 638,000 households in Massachusetts receive SNAP. One-third include someone over age 60. Nearly half have a family member with a disability. One in four include school-aged or younger children. One in three report no income at all.
The SNAP benefit varies from household to household and is calculated by income, assets, household size, the number of young children, and other factors including whether a family receives other public benefits or child support.
For too many, too little money is becoming a fact of life. Ebony, a clerk at the Daily Table grocery store in Dorchester who asked to use only her first name to protect her privacy, is the sole provider for two children under 2 years old, and relies on SNAP to feed her family. Her budget was always tight – she rents in Dorchester and pays for child care – but it keeps getting tighter. Her children’s day care no longer provides lunch, she said, which caught her by surprise. When she got a letter in the mail from the federal government explaining that the expanded benefit was ending, Ebony felt the squeeze in her chest.
“I was like, I should probably start saving,” she said.
For their part, state lawmakers say they want to soften the blow.
Governor Maura Healey and Legislative leaders have proposed $130 million to fund about $65 in extra SNAP a month, about 40 percent of the roughly $160 in expanded benefits Massachusetts residents have received for the last three years.
Both the House and Senate passed versions of the bill, with an emergency clause that would make it go into effect with a stroke of Healey’s pen, but first they must reconcile minor differences.
But, as activists point out, even that money would run out in a few months.
“The reality is people are going to decide between putting food on the table and paying rent,” Juan Camilo Saavedra of La Colaborativa said. “Imagine waking up every day and having to make that decision.”
Jamie Curtis, a single mother of two, said she “nearly had a heart attack” when she found out the extra $115 she was receiving would soon go away. She doesn’t work due to a disability and relies on local food pantries to help feed herself and her children nutritious food.
“I am not going to be feeding my kids ramen,” said Curtis, who lives in the tiny Essex County town of Georgetown.
Reina Romero, also a single mother, said the $250 she received with the expanded SNAP benefit still didn’t cover the food she needed for herself and her 13-year-old son in Chelsea. Romero lives in subsidized housing and receives federal money but still relies on La Colaborativa and the Salvation Army to fill the gaps.
“It makes me cry,” Romero, 48, told the Globe in Spanish. “They are not giving the amount you need.”
Project Bread’s McAleer said calls to its assistance hot line have spiked 30 percent over this time last year as worried clients seek help. SNAP counselors at the Greater Boston Food Bank’s help line have also seen their call volume pick up in the past few weeks, said spokesperson Catherine Lynn. They’re steering more mothers to WIC (a federal program for women and children), more seniors to rental assistance programs, and more people overall to the Healthy Incentives Program run by the state, which offers support for buying fresh produce from farmer’s markets.
“Big picture: Food, energy, gas, transportation, child care, medical costs, housing, all of those expenses are out of control,” Lynn said. “When you think about all of those things an individual or family has to consider, and they’re all impacted by inflation and food is typically the last thing on their list.”
Rob Twyman, CEO of the Daily Table grocery stores, said since the pandemic, SNAP payments nearly doubled. Today, a quarter of all purchases at his stores are paid by SNAP.
Everything in the store is SNAP-eligible, even prepared foods, and the store offers prices that are roughly 20 or 30 percent lower than other stores. SNAP dollars go twice as far on fresh produce, and his staff are trained to help customers get the most for their money. The urgency has ratcheted up recently, with the ballooning cost of food and the end of the expanded benefit.
“The root cause that started some of the issues in the past couple of years has subsided, but the symptoms have not,” Twyman said. “We still have significant food insecurity in Massachusetts and the United States, unemployment is higher among Black and Latino populations than within white populations, and, of course, food inflation is at an all-time high.”
Food banks themselves are battling inflation, said Ben Engle, chief operations officer at Food For Free, which distributes food to pantries. Most of it, Engle said, comes from the Greater Boston Food Bank, which is paying 20 to 30 percent more on some items, and thus has less on hand. And there’s less money and resources available to help as the pandemic fades in urgency.
“It’s all getting extremely exacerbated by the lack of attention that social services are getting now as COVID numbers decrease,” he said.
And that is only making life harder for people like Marina Peña.
The 44-year-old saw her SNAP benefits drop from $983 a month with pandemic aid to just $401 this month. She’s feeling desperate as she struggles to figure out how to feed her two daughters and three grandchildren, as well as her mother, who Peña was able to help with the extra benefits. Now energy bills are ticking up, she’s falling behind on rent, and she’s trying to figure out how to stretch her grocery budget even further.
But when Peña went to Market Basket this week for groceries, a bag of rice that she said cost $18 three years ago now costs $50. A gallon of cooking oil had doubled to $40. As she went to check out, she said, she saw another mother in her 20s sobbing. Her SNAP benefits had dropped from more than $1,000 a month to $387. She had four kids. Peña watched the woman begin to remove items from the belt. “I’ve been through what she’s been through,” Peña said. She said she helped pay for the woman’s groceries.
On Friday, Peña signed up to receive food at the Catholic Charities Boston food pantry in Lynn, filling up a shopping cart with oranges, eggs, milk, brown rice, and pasta.
”Every night I just lay back, and I cry. My kids and grandkids say, ‘Mom, I’m hungry. I’m hungry.’ What are you supposed to do?” she said. “It’s like everybody hit rock bottom again.”