by Kirsten Moore, Cooperative Services Director
At Reader deadline, the federal government has been partially shut down since December 22. While Wisconsin ranks the “46th most-affected state” by the shutdown according to a report from Wallet-Hub, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is one of nine federal agencies impacted, with Vox reporting 66.5% of employees have been put on furlough. This affects people relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that funds FoodShare/QUEST in Wisconsin, nonprofits providing food security to local citizens, farmers, and the food and beverage industry. Here’s a roundup of the ways the shutdown has affected customers and groceries.
The Co-op Continues to Accept FoodShare/QUEST and WIC
Fortunately, our licensing for each of our retail locations to accept FoodShare/QUEST and for Willy North to accept the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants, and Children (WIC) is current; we were not scheduled for licensing renewal prior to the shutdown. This means that unlike some other grocers who were in the middle of applying or renewing licensing to accept these benefits when the shutdown occurred, we are still able to accept FoodShare/QUEST and WIC at this time. So far, the Co-op has not heard of any changes impacting WIC to date.
FoodShare/QUEST For February Distributed to Participants Early, By January 20
There are nearly 39 million people enrolled in SNAP programs like FoodShare/QUEST and SNAP provides about $4.8 billion in benefits monthly nationwide (the average household receives $249/month). FoodShare/QUEST provides extra money for groceries to individuals and families with low-income. According to Politico, SNAP is a mandatory entitlement (anyone who meets the guidelines receives the benefits), but it relies on appropriations from Congress for funding. Prior to the shutdown, future appropriations were not authorized yet, and so a work-around was implemented to ensure February funding and to buy time for March planning. In order for SNAP participants to receive full February benefits, the USDA required all states to distribute the benefits by January 20. This is highly unusual, as benefits are typically distributed on a staggered schedule, with a certain number of participants receiving benefits each week. Staggered distribution makes the program easier to administer fiscally, and, Politico says, easier on grocery stores, since most participants shop as soon as they receive benefits. Some participants may have been confused or surprised by receiving February benefits early. Some people also may feel compelled to spend more of their benefits earlier than usual, leaving them stretched thin later in February. Presently, there is no news available regarding March benefits distribution and the shutdown. That not knowing could be stressful for those relying on these benefits to feed their families.
Receive One Extra Voucher Double Dollars Tuesdays Through February
To support people using FoodShare/QUEST amid these challenges and uncertainty, we increased the total Double Dollars vouchers a person can receive when spending $5 to $20 or more on Tuesdays using FoodShare/QUEST. Double Dollars is a nutrition incentive program helping those using FoodShare/QUEST purchase fresh or frozen fruits, vegetables and legumes; and seeds and seedlings for growing edible plants. From January 20 through February 28, FoodShare/QUEST participants will be eligible to receive one extra $5 voucher while shopping on Double Dollars Tuesdays:
• Spending $5-$9.99 using FoodShare/QUEST yields $10 (2 vouchers)
• Spending $10-$14.99 using FoodShare/QUEST yields $15 (3 vouchers)
• Spending $15-$19.99 using FoodShare QUEST yields $20 (4 vouchers)
• Spending $20+ using FoodShare/QUEST yields $25 (5 vouchers)
This increased distribution of Double Dollars is available January 22 and 29, and February 5, 12, 19, and 26. On March 5 and 12, we will continue distributing Double Dollars at the 1:1 match in their regular $5 increments up to $20 regardless of whether new March SNAP funds are available. Double Dollars can be spent at the Co-op any day of the week through May, and you can save unused vouchers to spend in October at the Co-op when the program returns. Special thanks to our Double Dollars coalition partners Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin, the City of Madison, Dane County, Double Dollars Fund contributors, and other private donors for making Double Dollars and this special increase possible.
Double Dollars Fund/POP Holiday Match Met! Food Pantries Need Support During the Shutdown
Double Dollars vouchers are primarily funded through the Co-op’s Double Dollars Fund, which you can support via choosing $1, $5, $10 or $25 Double Dollars Fund scan cards to add a cash donation at checkout, or by reusing bags when you shop the Co-op. When you use reusable bags, we save 10¢ to contribute to the fund, and when you reuse disposable bags, we save 5¢ to contribute to the fund.
One big reason we are able to give extra Double Dollars vouchers this February during the shutdown is you! We told you that in November and December we would match your Double Dollars Fund contributions 1:1 to support our six neighborhood food pantries with Pantries of Plenty, up to $10,000. You met our matching goal by contributing an amazing $15,952.75 to Double Dollars. Each participating food pantry (Bread of Life Food Pantry, Goodman Community Center Fitz Food Pantry, Lussier Community Education Center, Middleton Outreach Ministry, The River Food Pantry and Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center) will receive $1,765 this year in Co-op gift cards to spend on fresh products that may be harder to come by during the winter season. Thank you for your generosity and for making this match a success!
The Appleton Post-Crescent reported last month on impacts the shutdown may have on Wisconsin’s food banks and pantries, noting the longer some federal employees go without pay, the more they may struggle to pay for food. This, compounded with potential SNAP benefits shortages in March, could be an issue for food pantries. Feeding Wisconsin’s executive director David Lee said in this article that this shutdown is putting “a lot of pressure on the charitable food system in our state.” If you wish to further contribute to our neighborhood food pantries, you may consider putting more food on the donation shelves located at each of our stores, or making cash donations to them via their websites online.
FoodShare/QUEST Continues to Accept Applications for Benefits
If you are considering applying for FoodShare/QUEST benefits, applications are still being accepted during the shutdown. You can find out more about FoodShare/QUEST by talking with someone from Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, and we host FoodShare/QUEST learning opportunities every month at all three Co-op retail locations (see the Community Calendar in the Reader or www.willystreet.coop/events to find the next date at a store most convenient for you). The benefits come on an easy-to-use debit-like card that can be used at the Co-op, many farmers’ markets, and most major grocery stores. Income guidelines are higher than you might think: individuals earning $11+ per hour and working 40 hours per week may qualify. To find out if you are eligible, please call 877-366-3635 for a confidential screening and appointment to apply. During your appointment, a FoodShare Outreach Specialist will assist you with an application, answer questions, and connect you with other great community resources. Walk-ins are welcome at the Co-op-hosted events.
SNAP Benefits Have A Multiplying Impact On The Community
SNAP is a very important program for food security. As we reported in September 2017, when you shop your Co-op or shop local, you can generate more money in the community than you’ve spent, because you spend it here, and then it gets spent again in the local community. According to National Cooperative Grocer, for every $1 we as shoppers spend at the Co-op, $1.60 goes back into the local economy. According to the USDA, $5 spent in FoodShare generates up to $9 in local economic activity by supporting local grocery stores and local farmers via the farmers’ markets and community shared agriculture (which is also eligible for FoodShare/QUEST spending). Any money that gets circulated locally increases local resilience and sustainability, even during economic downturns. SNAP benefits currently account for about 2% of our transactions Co-op-wide and provide on average about 7,741 meals to participating Co-op shoppers per month.
Farming Impacts From The Government Shutdown
Co-op News recently reported that agricultural co-ops and other farmers are facing shutdown-related strains as they await various “payments, loans and disaster assistance funds, compensation for losses from the trade war, and funding for conservation programmes.” Cornelius Key, Georgia’s coordinator for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives told Co-op News “small farmers that normally submit farm loan applications in December and January can’t submit loans at the moment. The shutdown will have a domino effect as it ultimately leads to a decreased harvest, greater farm debt, and loan defaults that could translate to land and farm losses.” This impact is not only felt for southern farmers, but farmers nationwide, including our local region. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says that USDA Farm Service Agencies, who process farm loans and support farmers with data needed to make growing and business decisions, are currently closed. They also noted that the 2018 Farm Bill, which passed close to the end of last year, also has not been implemented due to USDA furloughs, which is delaying the start of “its program aimed at helping small dairy farms endure one of the worst downturns in the dairy industry in recent memory.”
Food Safety and Labeling
At press time, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service was continuing to conduct inspections of meat, poultry, processed eggs, grains (and other commodities), and imports. The Food and Drug Administration had not recommended any changes to diets due to the shutdown and they have been monitoring for foodborne illness outbreaks, and high-risk food and medical product recalls. For more information about food safety and the shutdown, you may find full statements about shutdown impacts at www.fda.gov, www.usda.gov. If you would like to learn more about food safety at home, the Partnership for Food Safety Education’s website www.fightbac.org has a number of resources and techniques to share regarding cleaning, separating, cooking and chilling food properly. We are also continuing our own food safety practices and monitoring for any potential product recalls in the food industry.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), part of the US Department of the Treasury, was also closed during the shutdown. According to National Public Radio (NPR), they review “alcohol labels for things like alcohol content or fluid ounces in a bottle” to approve new products. The TTB receives about 3,000 applications weekly, and due to the closure, labels were not being approved. That means alcohol producing companies like breweries can make new products and sell them in draft form, but not in bottles or cans until approval. This has impacted about 50% of the craft beer industry, and producers are bracing for a potential backlog of label approvals. Wisconsin brewer Joe Katchever of Pearl Street Brewery (one of many breweries waiting for new labels to be approved) said to NPR “We’re all hoping they figure out what they need to figure out and open the government back up.”
Some Impacts Noted, But Not All
The roundup provided here summarizes only a fraction of the impacts the partial government shutdown has had on people, producers, and the food supply. Your Co-op will continue to monitor impacts and do our best to keep you apprised of grocery issues that may impact you. Thanks for supporting your Co-op and the local community! It takes a village to get through the hard times, and the village that makes up this cooperative is doing what we can to navigate together.