Eggs are displayed on store shelves at a local grocery store in Chandler, Ariz., Jan. 21, 2023, amid soaring egg prices. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Another pandemic relief policy is ending, making groceries even more expensive for low-income Oklahomans

In 2020, the federal government upped food aid. The increased monthly benefits end in March.

  • Catherine Sweeney

Grocery prices are high right now, but they’re about to get even higher for more than half a million Oklahomans.

During the pandemic, the federal government started giving extra help to families who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — often called SNAP or food stamps. Officials were trying to make sure families could still put food on the table during the sudden economic downturn.

But when Congress passed its big omnibus bill in December, they nixed the extra help, putting a sudden expiration date on three years of emergency payments.

“It came fast, but we knew all along it would end,” said Deborah Smith, the director of adult and family services for the state’s department of human services.

SNAP works by giving families a debit card, and money shows up in that account in the first week or so of the month. These extra payments would come later into the month. March will be the last time that money shows up. She says the help was known as an emergency allotment.

About 700,000 Oklahomans benefit from SNAP every month. The regular, permanent benefits average $250 per month for a family. The emergency allotment added to that, and its rate depended on the number of people in the family, their income, and their expenses.

“It definitely varies family to family,” Smith said. “So one scenario might be a single adult, who would be reduced by the $95 emergency allotment benefit. But a much larger family, say a two-parent household with four children … could be reduced as much as over $1,000 a month.”

Rodney Holcomb, an agriculture economist at Oklahoma State University, says this isn’t the first time the federal government has used emergency allotments.

“In the Great Recession back in 2008, 2009 (we) did something very similar,” he said.

He says the government relies on these payments because they’re quick and targeted. Families using SNAP don’t need any more means testing or income verification. That’s especially helpful in quick downturns, like in 2020.

“People were, you know, out of work,” he said. “They still need to put food on the table. So that was a good way to kind of stimulate the economy, but also make sure people still had food security. And another side benefit of that was those extra temporary SNAP dollars also help manage the flow of people to food pantries. So otherwise all your food pantries would have been overwhelmed.”

The benefits are designed to be temporary, though, and in many ways the economy has bounced back. But families losing this assistance are going to face another problem.

“Huge, double digit, food price inflation over the last two years,” he said.

Grocery prices have increased nearly 12 percent overall in the past year alone. Of course some products have seen higher price spikes than others. The notorious example: eggs. From January of 2021 to January of 2023, the price of a dozen shot up from less than a dollar fifty on average to nearly $5, according to the Federal Reserve.

Critics have accused large farm corporations and food producers of price gouging, especially with eggs.

Holcomb says there are many other reasons for the hikes — and a lot of it sounds like a game of dominoes.

“One of the biggest is energy,” Holcomb said. “How much did it cost to deliver that product from point A to point B? We saw a huge increase in diesel prices. That impacts your delivery — impacts everything about it.”

He said animal-based products are at the end of a long production line, where prices went up each step of the way.

“So if all your feed grains go up because the cost of producing them went up — corn, soybeans, things like that — that’s going to have an impact on that entire protein market,” he said. “Meat, dairy, eggs, it’s going to impact all of it.”

Hunger Free Oklahoma’s executive director Chris Bernard says food prices aren’t the only strain these families will face. Other pandemic relief efforts are winding down too. For example, a policy that allowed residents to stay enrolled in Medicaid even if they lost eligibility is also ending this year, and 300,000 Oklahomans are expected to lose their access to SoonerCare.

“The timing’s not great for all these things… So they’re they’re either going to be making sacrifices. They’re going to be leaning heavier on charitable distribution models. Right. Or needing to find these other resources that can plug their budgets in other areas so that they still have money for food.”

He and his organization are trying to get the word out about several other aid programs that families can look into to prepare for the decrease in benefits.

He says that participation in the Women Infants and Children — or WIC — program isn’t as high as it could be. As the name indicates, that program focuses on nutrition for pregnant Oklahomans, their infants and their young children – those under 5. Benefits under that program decrease once a baby is old enough to stop needing formula.

“In in normal times, people view it as maybe not worth the effort they have to put into it,” Bernard said. “But right now, there’s some waivers that still exist that make it much less burdensome to participate in.”

Another aid program exists for indigenous people who need help with food.

“If you’re a tribal member and it makes sense for you looking into the federal distribution program on Indian reservations, which is the commodities program,” he said.

He noted that federal law allows residents to be enrolled in SNAP or the distribution program, but not both. Advocates are working to persuade Congress to change that policy in the upcoming farm bill, but in the meantime, Bernard says that families might re-assess which program is better for them with their benefit decrease.

“You can either be on SNAP or that, but it may be that that program is more valuable to you now than SNAP is.”