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Shutdown could drive more people to food shelves

If SNAP runs out and the shutdown continues, it's unclear what will happen.

Local food shelves are expecting an increase in clients if the partial government shutdown continues. 

Earlier this week, the United States Department of Agriculture announced a plan to provide full benefits for participants of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the month of February. But it's unclear what would happen if the shutdown continued beyond that. 

"We have been watching that and of course it hasn't really hit us yet," said Peg Keenan, executive director of ICA Food Shelf in Minnetonka. The nonprofit serves Hopkins, Minnetonka, Excelsior, Shorewood, Deephaven, Greenwood and Woodland. 

Keenan said at least 38 percent of ICA Food Shelf's clients use SNAP. That's approximately 2,500 people. 

"While it would certainly affect our clients that are already coming here, the other thing is there are people out there that are just making it and maybe with their SNAP payments they don't need to come to ICA," Keenan said. "But now all of a sudden if they don't get their SNAP payments and they're not able to get food through that program... they will be coming here. So those will be additional clients. We will certainly welcome them and we will have food for everyone." 

More than 400,000 Minnesotans rely on SNAP and 70 percent of them are children, seniors and people with disabilities. According to Tony Lourey, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, the average assistance is about $110 a month. 

"Letting this get hung up in the politics out in D.C. is simply unacceptable. People can't wait for food," Lourey told KARE 11 in an interview on Tuesday. 

Sophia Lenarz-Coy, director of programs and operations for The Food Group, said all the unknowns surrounding the shutdown add up to an overwhelming time for food shelves. 

According to Hunger Solutions Minnesota, the state's food shelves have had record-high visits for seven straight years with 3.4 million visits in 2017. 

Lenarz-Coy said furloughed federal workers may also need to turn to their local food shelves. 

Keenan added, "Even thinking about if the tax refunds are delayed, it really affects our clients as well because they count on that. They plan and they budget for the fact that they're going to be getting refunds at a certain time and that helps pay their rent payments. So it really has a broader effect than people may originally think."

USDA said the child nutrition programs, including school meals and after-school programs, will have funding available to continue operations through March. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) has prior year funding which USDA will begin to provide states this week for February benefits. 

The Minnesota Department of Human Services told KARE 11, "DHS' urgent priority is disbursing SNAP benefits to participants under the provision the USDA identified in a January 8, 2019, press release. USDA has provided instruction on how to issue February benefits in January. USDA has not offered guidance on the status of March benefits."

If you are in need of food assistance, you can call United Way at 211 or visit Hunger Solutions and put in your zip code to see food shelves in your area. 

The Minnesota Food HelpLine is also a statewide resource for people struggling with hunger. The HelpLine can help answer questions about SNAP eligibility and applications, refer people to their local food shelf or meal program, and find other community food resources to help when budgets are tight, according to Hunger Solutions. 

To contact the Minnesota Food HelpLine: 

Call: 1-888-711-1151

Email: minnesotafoodhelpline@hungersolutions.org

Chat: http://www.hungersolutions.org/find-help/