Enough is enough: Political fight over debt ceiling could crush food pantries

“Linda” is among the thousands of new people we serve at Mercy Center’s food pantry since the cuts this past February to COVID SNAP benefits, formerly food stamps. She is a hard-working single mom with four teenagers who, overnight, went from $600 per month in SNAP benefits to just $150 in food assistance. The $450 reduction in benefits, along with the continued high prices of groceries, already makes it impossible for her to purchase enough food to feed her children. Simply put, she must turn to our pantry to make up the difference.

At Mercy Center in Asbury Park, the families we serve are still struggling because of historically high food costs, low wages and the end of COVID SNAP benefits. It does not surprise us that United Way of Northern Jersey just reported, “37% of working families struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic.” The termination of COVID SNAP benefits in February dramatically affected families in Monmouth County. We see it here on the ground in real life and in heart wrenching real time.

Now, the House of Representatives has passed a debt-ceiling bill that, if passed by the Senate, would further limit access to SNAP benefits. The current bill would force additional deeply harmful cuts and will leave more families, children, veterans and seniors hungry. As a result, even more families will turn to pantries for survival. Enough is enough.

Mercy Center’s food pantry, which served nearly 1,600 people in 2021, was flooded with families the next year, and we saw the number explode to 35,000 in 2022. In just the first quarter of this year, we served more than 20,000 people, putting us on a path to a mind-numbing 80,000 this year. We simply cannot sustain the increase in demand long-term.

House leaders want to expand existing work requirements for SNAP, which would add another layer of red tape for struggling families. Expanding work requirements for SNAP unfairly targets people who work seasonal and unstable jobs, and those with disabilities. At Mercy Center, where I am the executive director, we are not interested in the politics of a debt ceiling, we care about the people we serve, and they should not be forced to make the choice between feeding their families and keeping a roof over their heads.

Our pantry line already begins in the early morning hours before we open, five days a week, in all types of weather. Even greater limits — as proposed in the debt ceiling package — on top of the post-COVID cutbacks on SNAP, will certainly lengthen that line.

When COVID SNAP enhancements ended in February, Mercy Center’s food pantry felt the pain immediately. We experienced an increase from 5,581 clients in February to 7,221 people in March. That’s a 30% jump! We had 596 new pantry users in February, to a whopping 1,711 new people in March. That’s a 187% hike. We are bracing for the day when the proposed cuts result in another round of pain for our most vulnerable.

Even worse, we are seeing frustration that comes with food insecurity. The anger and fear is palpable. We have had to install cameras and provide our volunteers with panic buttons as they routinely now must manage the understandable but unruly behavior that comes with the growling of an empty stomach or the crying of a hungry baby.

Approximately 785,000 struggling New Jersey residents — children, parents, seniors, people with disabilities, veterans and more — are already hurt by the COVID cuts. SNAP households in Monmouth County — where more than half those struggling are children — lost $190 per month in benefits. This deficit of approximately 1.5 million meals each month cannot be on the back of food pantries like Mercy Center. We are funded solely on donations, and we cannot be substitutes for the enormous loss in food assistance that will accompany greater SNAP restrictions.

It is important to note the SNAP system was imperfect before the devastating cuts — hygiene products are not included for women and girls, and mothers are not permitted to use the benefits to purchase diapers for their infants and toddlers. Imagine a teenage girl, already behind because of COVID learning gaps, unable to go to school because she cannot afford hygiene products. Money for food will have to come first.

Another preexisting failure with SNAP that will be exasperated by new limitations is with benefits for seniors. We get calls regularly from seniors in desperation, with nothing in their refrigerators or cabinets, telling us they are starving. They routinely lose SNAP benefits as their caregivers are not allowed to use their cards on their behalf, and our seniors have no transportation to get to grocery stores themselves, and often have mobility issues. In fact, Mercy Center started delivering food from our pantry to their homes in response to their cries for help.

House Republicans argue that requiring able-bodied adults without dependents, ages 18 to 55, up from the current requirement for ages 18 to 49, to work or participate in a work training or education program for a least 20 hours per week to receive continuous SNAP benefits would save the nation a “few billion dollars.” Studies have shown such limits on benefits do not increase earnings or employment — they just increase hunger and food insecurity. At Mercy Center, we believe it is harsh, cruel even, to play politics with the well-being of our neighbors in need. It is also counterintuitive and short-minded for our politicians to make further cuts to SNAP that fuel local stores, pumping life into New Jersey’s economy.

As debt ceiling talks continue, we urge you to contact your local member of Congress and say, “enough is enough.” SNAP is universally recognized as the singlehanded most important tool in the fight against hunger. Longer lines at food pantries are not the solution to the political fight over the debt ceiling.

Kim Guadagno was New Jersey’s lieutenant governor from 2010 to 2018. She is now the executive director of Mercy Center, a 501(c)( 3) in Asbury Park. To find out more, go to mercycenternj.org.