Congress cuts ‘heat and eat’ program; state considers making up the difference in food stamps benefits

The omnibus Farm Bill just passed by Congress will hurt the food stamps program. The bill includes $8.6 billion in cuts over the next 10 years in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. U.S. House Republicans had initially sought $40 billion in reductions.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., says he is disappointed by the cuts; he characterized the reductions as “both morally and economically wrong to cut assistance to families in a very difficult economy.”

For all practical purposes, the new bill eliminates what is known as the “heat and eat” program in northern states. It requires 17 states to come up with additional monies to fund food stamps for people who are eligible for the Low Income Heating Assistance Program.

Only Vermont has said it will consider making up the difference in fiscal year 2015.

Marissa Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, says if the state doesn’t step up, about 21,000 families would lose food stamps benefits worth $90 a month on average.

The total loss, mainly to seniors and the disabled, amounts to about $1.8 million per month in food purchasing power that would be spent in Vermont, according to John Sayles, executive director of the Vermont Foodbank.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has assured Sanders that he will work with the Legislature to prevent cuts to the “heat and eat” program.

The cost to cover the difference would be roughly $400,000 a year, Parisi says, or about $20 per household. The “heat and eat” program currently costs the state about $3 to $5 per person for a total cost of $75,000, which leverages about $6 million in food for families, she says.

Parisi says she worries that the state won’t be able to make up the difference in future years, and there is no assurance that the program will stay in place over the long run.

“What’s problematic is, it’s putting this responsibility of $9 billion in cuts at the national level on the backs of 17 states,” she said. “New York state, for example, has operated the program for many years, and they are highly unlikely to stretch LIHEAP that far. That’s what Congress is depending on — that states won’t be able to operate the program and then they’ll see savings.”

Parisi says the “heat and eat” program is a “fairness thing” for people who would be eligible for LIHEAP but don’t receive benefits because heat is included in their rent. These beneficiaries pay more for rent, but don’t get LIHEAP to offset the cost.

The state gives these families a $3 to $5 LIHEAP benefit for a heating season. The small payment triggers the highest utility deduction for food stamps eligibility, Parisi says.

This most recent federal cut to SNAP follows a reduction in monthly benefits that went into effect in December. During the Great Recession, families got a boost from federal stimulus funds. That additional food stamps money has been eliminated, and a family of four has seen a $36 a month reduction in monthly benefits.

Anne Galloway

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