For Heidi Palmer, the federal government shutdown isn't just playing out on the news. It's reached her kitchen table.
Palmer is one of about 117,000 Montanans who receive benefits through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The shutdown prompted the program to pay out its February benefits two weeks early, meaning Palmer and other SNAP recipients have to stretch already-modest benefits even further.
The crowd was light as Palmer browsed the aisles at the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center Tuesday afternoon. But with this change in programs, she predicts that "it's going to change drastically."
An average Montana household on SNAP receives $239 per month, according to Jamie Palagi with the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Normally, families would get their February benefits at the beginning of next month. But because the U.S. Department of Agriculture can only incur obligations for SNAP within 30 days of its appropriation ending, the department had to pay its February funds to states by Jan. 20. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services aims to load February benefits onto the program’s electronic pay cards by Thursday.
“It’s not extra money, it’s early money,” said Jamie Palagi, administrator for the department’s Human and Community Services Division, making clear that families will have to make this payout last until the end of February.
That much was clear to Heidi Palmer Tuesday.
“You get used to budgeting off what you get, when you get it,” she said, “so what you get for February, you have to stretch for all of February.”
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With three kids, Palmer already has to look beyond SNAP to make that happen each month. “This is kind of my resource for the end of the month when things start to dwindle,” she said of the food bank. Asked if she expected to be coming here more, she replied, “Oh, yeah.”
Aaron Brock, the food bank’s executive director, sees plenty of other clients in her situation. “People that are getting SNAP already have to budget,” he said. “What our trends show us is that we're busier at the end of each month than we are at the beginning, and that is because people have used their SNAP or have used other benefits, and so there's more month than there is benefit.
“I think this may exacerbate it,” he said, adding that the situation could have been worse. “Some of the language we were hearing a couple weeks ago threw doubt on whether or not people were even going to get February SNAP [benefits], so this is much better than that outcome.”
At the Orange Street Food Farm, store manager Vanessa Hendrix said that “I kind of anticipate it being a little bit slower for that type of business at the end of February. … I just hope everyone gets it all sorted out.”
The Department of Agriculture has not specified what will happen to SNAP if the shutdown continues beyond February. The government shutdown, already the longest in U.S. history, showed few signs of ending Tuesday as President Trump and lawmakers in Congress remain at odds over border security and the terms of reopening the government.
While Brock said that “Missoula is a caring community that wants to make sure that our neighbors don't have to go hungry,” he also made clear that “no one is equipped to fill the gap if SNAP is to go away.”
But for now, he and the food bank’s other staff are focused on ensuring that the program’s clients can make their benefits last. In the food bank’s store, Palmer predicted that “this place is going to be a hard-core resource.”
The Department of Public Health and Human Services plans to continue to process applications for SNAP, and issue benefits to new enrollees on a day-by-day basis for the time being. For more information, recipients can call the Public Assistance Helpline at 1-888-706-1535, or check their account balance by calling the Montana Card Customer Service Help Desk at 1-866-850-1556.