With food stamp cuts just days away, millions of Americans brace for tougher times in the grocery aisle

When a pandemic aid that has boosted food-stamp benefits gets cut next week, millions of low-income Americans will confront smaller balances in the accounts they use to pay for groceries, leaving food banks bracing for a spike in demand.

As of March 1, the emergency allotment for individuals and households enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, will end in 32 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the US Virgin Islands.

That means recipient households will see their monthly grocery allocations reduced by at least $95, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning research and policy think tank. In daily terms, that equates to trimming the roughly $9 per-person average to about $6.10. And the change comes when food prices in January increased by 10% over the same month last year.

Charles Jones, a 63-year-old US military veteran based in Rockford, Illinois, received an enhanced monthly SNAP benefit of $281 under the temporary program. After it ends next week, his payments will plummet to $23 — the minimum monthly amount.

“When they cut this extra benefit from SNAP, that’s going to put me in a serious problem,” he said.

Jones said his pandemic-era SNAP payments helped him move out of a homeless shelter and into a $650-a-month studio apartment earlier this month. He said he’s concerned that when his allotment is slashed — likely because he also receives Social Security disability insurance payments — his rent and utilities will consume all of his income, jeopardizing his new shot at stability.

“It helped me out a lot,” said Jones, who also relies on boxed pantry deliveries but says he often can’t eat much of their contents because of a heart condition. “You know how the government is. They want to keep the rich, rich and the poor, poor.”

Stacy Dean, deputy under secretary for the US Department of Agriculture, which administers the SNAP program, acknowledged that the emergency benefits had proved “powerful” for recipients.

“That can’t be underscored enough in the difference it’s made in mitigating increases in hunger and addressing economic hardship and poverty,” Dean said. She added that while the program’s expiration “will be very difficult,” the extra aid it delivered “was always designed to be temporary.”

More than 42.3 million people participated in SNAP as of October, the most recent period for which federal data was available. Participation had not previously surpassed that level since the summer of 2020. The program’s total cost for fiscal 2021 was $113.68 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. That includes nine months of a 15% increase to the maximum benefit as part of the emergency allotments.

Research by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank for economic and social policy, found that the enhanced SNAP benefits kept 4.2 million people above the poverty line in the final quarter of 2021, lowering overall poverty by 10% and child poverty by 14%. The study also found that the emergency program helped reduce poverty rates most steeply among Black and Latino recipients.

Illinois is one of 32 states that had allowed the enhanced SNAP benefits to extend to the federal March 1 deadline. But many others — including Florida, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi — had already chosen to end the emergency allotment, in some cases as early as 2021.

Food banks in those areas say they’ve seen sharply higher demand since SNAP benefits were reduced, and relief organizations in the remaining states are now scrambling to strategize.

“We saw what happened in the other states, where they ended so early,” said Laura Lester, chief executive of the Feeding Alabama food bank network, which serves a state where the extra aid ends next week.

In Georgia, which ended its enhanced benefits last May, the Atlanta Community Food Bank told NBC News earlier this month that visits had increased 34% through December. Wholesome Wave Georgia, a nonprofit group that administers a program that matches SNAP dollars spent on local produce, said the total number of families it has served since the emergency allotment expired was already approaching its typical annual figures, though the group didn’t attribute its recent demand solely to SNAP changes.

“We are currently preparing ourselves for that,” Lester said.

In part to counter the emergency benefit expiration, the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama has boosted its annual budget to $10 million from $8.9 million last year, it said. The organization said it spent more than $5 million last year purchasing food to donate, up from $3.2 million in 2021.

Operations officials at the Food Bank of North Alabama said they recently ordered twice the amount of food they typically buy this time of year. The food bank also said donations that might typically require too many personnel to bag and deliver — a huge bin of sweet potatoes, for example — are now embraced. It is also planning a large mobile pantry for the first week of April, aimed to coincide with the last depletion of residents’ enhanced benefit payments.

In October, the USDA issued a 12.5% ​​cost-of-living adjustment to the maximum SNAP benefit, but the full impact on recipients’ finances in a period of high inflation remains unclear. Another adjustment is expected in the fall. In 2021, the USDA also undertook a top-to-bottom re-evaluation of Americans’ dietary needs and food costs, and increased the maximum SNAP benefits by 21%.

Still, some advocates and economists warn that the finances of many low-income Americans are in perilous shape even as the country moves beyond the pandemic. Indeed, the USDA’s estimate for the cost of a “thrifty” balanced monthly meal plan for a family of four with grade-school-age children has increased by around 50% since before the pandemic, from about $654 in January 2020 to $978 in January 2023.

“SNAP is our most effective tool at fighting hunger,” said Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior fellow who studies the program at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Now that this temporary boost is coming to an end in all states, families who are already struggling to afford the rising cost of food and other expenses are going to feel a big impact.”

In a recent survey Bankrate published Thursday, 39% of US adults reported having less savings than last year, and 10% who had no emergency savings last year still have none this year.

As financial buffers dwindle, the SNAP enhancements have provided a crucial, if partial, cushion for many Americans, said Mark Hamrick, chief economic analyst at Bankrate. Cutting them now “is removing a social safety net component that is going to cause some people to face food insecurity,” he said. “The expiration or lack of availability of this benefit really couldn’t occur at a less opportunity.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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