CAPITAL REGION -- Concern about the impact of the federal government shutdown on food stamp assistance to the poor is growing.
Though U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced on Tuesday a plan to distribute payments through February, despite the shutdown, that plan requires states to apply for and distribute their February payments by Jan. 20. New York has agreed to do that, but that still leaves the program in question beyond that date.
An early payment for February might sound like good news for food stamp recipients, but it means a longer gap before households will receive their March payments, assuming the shutdown has ended by then.
"I think that, in the very very short term, this is good news for families that have to [have help to] feed their family members, but it will create issues later in February," said Sherry Tomasky, director of public affairs for Hunger Solutions New York, an Albany-based non-profit. "Food banks and food pantries will need to be on high alert and planning for more demand."
Across the Capital Region, about 115,000 people in about 62,000 households are dependent on the food stamp program, which is formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and is the federal government's primary anti-hunger program.
Statewide statistics for the 2016-17 federal fiscal year show 30 percent of SNAP recipients are children, 46 percent are elderly or disabled, and 75 percent of recipient households have at least one person working.
“SNAP primarily supports vulnerable people," Tomasky said. "Children, the elderly and disabled are the most vulnerable people, and they are the people being most hurt by this shutdown.”
The shutdown, which has no end in sight, has closed the Department of Agriculture, which administers food stamps. Perdue said there is $3 billion available to keep the SNAP program going through February, provided states apply for the funding by Jan. 20, which would be within 30 days of the start of the shutdown.
The Schenectady County Department of Social Services distributes food stamp assistance to nearly 21,000 county residents -- the second-most of any county in the Capital Region -- and is watching the situation closely.
"At this point, we are hopeful the government reopens before it becomes an issue," said county spokesman Joe McQueen. "Obviously, that will impact a large number of county residents, but we're still working with state government to determine what the impact could be. But we're hopeful it won't come to that."
If it did come to that, it is unrealistic to think food banks and food pantries could make up for the funding shortfall by providing more donated food, said Mark Quandt, executive director of the Food Bank of Northeastern New York in Latham, which supplies food pantries in 23 counties.
By a rough estimate, he said feeding those in the Capital Region who rely on food stamps for just two weeks would require more than 7 million of pounds of food. The food bank distributes 3.2 million pounds per month through the counties it serves, he said.
"This is above and beyond the emergencies people already have," Quandt said. "How in the world are you going to make up the difference? You can't. I don't think people realize the scope of the SNAP program. You can't make up for it."
More than 100 Democratic members of Congress, including local U.S. Reps. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, and Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, on Wednesday sent Perdue a letter saying questions remain about future funding and how the program will be administered during the shutdown.
Delgado and Tonko both urged a quick end to the shutdown.
The congressional letter called SNAP "our nation's most effective anti-hunger safety net," with 38 million people depending on it.
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, who has broken with fellow Republicans in voting to end the shutdown, has also cited the threat to SNAP as one of the biggest issues if the shutdown is prolonged.
In October, 2.7 million people in 1.5 million households received SNAP benefits statewide, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The governor said loss of SNAP benefits may be the biggest issue for New Yorkers if the shutdown continues.
The shutdown could also affect other programs that provide low-income assistance, including Food Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Both programs have several months of funding reserved, according to Cuomo, but they could be affected by an extended shutdown.
Tomasky said the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance is doing an outstanding job of making sure people get their benefits, despite the shutdown's complications, but the shutdown needs to end because it is putting both food stamp recipients and those who administer such programs in uncharted waters.
“The amount of uncertainly is enormous, and it’s very difficult to plan in that environment," she said.
Quandt said the Food Bank of Northeastern New York won't turn its back on people, but talk about contingencies needs to be realistic.
"If it comes to that, there's no way in the world we can replace what SNAP is going to take away," he said. "The shutdown has meaning for people, and the more it goes on, the more vulnerable people will get hurt."
A breakdown of local food stamp recipients by county for October, the most recent figures available:
ALBANY 17,662 32,490
FULTON 4,223 7,149
MONTGOMERY 4,271 8,298
RENSSELAER 7,826 15,247
SARATOGA 7,467 12,561
SCHENECTADY 10,930 20,680
SCHOHARIE 1,981 3,408
Source: state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance