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Shutdown Threatens SNAP Food Benefits; Nonprofits Take Up Slack

Melodie Edwards
Interfaith-Good Samaritan volunteers take a break from their fruit sorting.

The Wyoming Department of Family Services has been working overtime to issue Wyoming families their SNAP food benefits a couple weeks early. That's because with the government saying they'll reopen, but for only three weeks, it's unclear when they'll get benefits again.

Wyoming's Department of Family Services interim administrator Korin Schmidt said, sure, families have their food benefits for this month. But with negotiations tense over when the government will be open to stay, DFS has a whole new challenge: making sure people don't fall out of the system indefinitely.

"We're concerned about our families," Schmidt said. "We're concerned about the long-term consequences. But we're also focusing on what we need to do to get fully operational once the funding is released."

Almost 14,000 households in Wyoming depend on SNAP to feed them each month, and most of those are single moms with children.

"I mean, children need to have food. They need to have calories, and appropriate calories, so that their brain development continues so that they have the ability to learn. Certainly, school performance can be affected as well if you have a child that's hungry," Schmidt said.

She said, DFS is trying to do small things to help people, like not forcing federal employees who are in good standing to pay their child support this month. But she said, it's hard for a big state agency like hers to shut down and then restart without affecting the dependability of their services. But she said, if food benefits continue to stop and start, "I think one of the best pieces of advice I can give families is to not be shy and reach out to community organizations. Communities do a wonderful job of pulling together resources. They're much more agile than we are as a state government to meet needs," Schmidt said.

One community organization bracing itself in case of gaps in SNAP benefits is Interfaith-Good Samaritan in Laramie. Client David Russell stopped in to get groceries and said he's living on disability checks. Wyomingites on disability use SNAP at some of the highest rates. He filled a bag with cereal, tuna, a can of fruit cocktail, some crackers, and a bag of apples. A truck full of fruit crashed on the interstate and so volunteers furiously sorted, weighed and stuffed apples in everyone's arms.

Interfaith-Good Samaritan Director Mike Vercauteren said his agency takes advantage of any opportunity to supply the 900 pounds of food they give away every single day here. Albany County is one of the poorest counties and has the highest rates of food insecurity in Wyoming. He said people who come through his door often can't find jobs. But many more do have jobs and still struggle, "working hard and not having enough money to pull it all together," he said. "Honestly, that's traumatic."

Vercauteren said, there are lots of forest service and TSA employees in town now furloughed, and man college students who rely on federal loans they might not get. He said, those folks have started stopping by to ask questions.

"Like, 'I don't know what's going to happen and if I do not get my next check, things are getting grim, what can you help me with?'"

Vercauteren said, he's especially worried about whether his agency can handle more suffering in a community where 26 percent of people already live below the poverty line.

"If it does continue, and people are going to be in trouble with their car payment, or their rent payment, we do want to help," said Vercauteren. "But the financial resources to offer that, it's going to be tough. All the government agencies are shut down so we can't go to our typical granters and ask for funds. So, it's got to come from the community."

Luckily, Interfaith-Good Samaritan isn't shouldering this crisis alone. Just upstairs is United Way, another nonprofit that finds funds for programs like Interfaith. Director Paul Heimer said he just got approval from his board to offer federal employees short term loans they can repay when the government opens and stays open.

"To make sure people don't starve, don't freeze to death, have a place to live, have their medical bills paid," Heimer said. "We hear reports of people who are only using half their medications because they don't have money, suffering from diabetes, not taking their insulin, all that sort of stuff. We will prevent that from happening here in Albany County, I guarantee you."

When asked what advice Heimer gives to families facing a gap in SNAP benefits, he said, come to Interfaith and don't be afraid to ask for help. But he also has some other advice.

"Contact our congressional delegation and tell them to do their damn jobs. And get this government open again. And I mean that!"

Wyoming's U.S. Senator Mike Enzi is currently working on efforts to prevent future shutdowns.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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