Food insecurity in Dane County and south central Wisconsin

The extra benefits from the pandemic ended in February, which means more people — including those in Dane County and south central Wisconsin — are struggling to feed their families.

Now more families are in need of support than ever, according to Nicholas Heckman from Public Health Madison and Dane County.

Before the pandemic, a single senior adult with a fixed income would qualify for a $23 monthly benefit.

But according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, during the pandemic families would receive the maximum amount of benefits for their household regardless of income, or $95, whichever was more.

Now that the SNAP(Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits have ended, the amount of benefits a family can receive will go back to pre-pandemic levels, said Julia Wiebe, the bilingual FoodShare Outreach Specialist at Second Harvest Food Bank.

Wiebe said the benefits ending doesn’t come as a surprise, but it still comes at a hard time for many people with inflation and rising housing prices.

Second Harvest provides food for pantries and they have had to order more food. They are also needing to get support from their partners for the extra help right now.

“I think the change to FoodShare, like losing the extra benefits, is something I think people anticipated because I knew it wasn't going to last forever. But it's still just happening at a very hard time for everybody,” Wiebe said.

Middleton Outreach Ministry
Another group that has been feeling the effects of SNAP benefits ending is Middleton Outreach Ministry, or MOM.

MOM had humble beginnings in a church basement about 40 years ago. A group of people wanted to help in their community become more food secure, so they founded this organization, which shifted to a nonprofit in 2007.

Since the pandemic, it has offered food pantry services to anyone in Dane County instead of restricting access to only people in a certain area. It also doesn't limit itself to just providing food — MOM also has housing-stability programs.

Additionally, MOM has delivery services for those who may not be able to get to the food pantry.

But MOM has been feeling the effects of the post-pandemic stress. As of January 2023, MOM was giving out the equivalent of 85,000 meals per month, which is up 130% from a year ago, according to Jenny Price, the communications manager for MOM.

Price said demand will likely increase even more with SNAP benefits ending.

"The program director who oversees our food pantry was chatting with a mom who was shopping recently in a food pantry, and she said with this future decrease and the medical needs of her son...in order to feed her family of five, she was probably going to have to come two to three times a week to the food pantry, whereas before she wasn't coming often,” she said.

MOM does not regulate who comes to their pantry or how often they come, because there are a number of factors that contribute to someone needing extra food, Price said.

A big contributor to food insecurity lately has been the rise in housing costs in Madison.

“Almost half of Dane County residents are spending at least a third of their income on rent. And that's not a sustainable situation,” Price said. “So people are coming to us, because they need help getting food to make sure they can make that rent.”

Study and Recommendations
Jess Calkins is the community food systems educator with Dane County Extension. She also serves on the County Food Council, which funded a study, released last month, through the council on Dane County food security.

The goal of this study was to determine ways to strengthen and support the food system in Dane County.

The first thing the study did, according to Calkins, was identify issues in Dane County that might be contributing to food insecurity. They mainly noticed issues in market opportunities, closures of in-person services from the pandemic and loss of employment for food workers.

The study then provided several recommendations for change. It encouraged a transition to new programs and offerings for families struggling post-pandemic. It also recommended increased resilience to prepare for future emergencies and including affected communities in planning for future programs.

Looking to the future
Heckman, the Dane County health official, said the state currently has a lot of other benefits for families struggling with food insecurity.

The city of Madison and Dane County provide funding through the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act to fund the Farms to Food Bank project to help provide for families in need.

There are not many funds for new initiatives, according to Heckman. But he said the key is facilitating communication between different FoodShare programs on how they can better support groups of people.

“Public health is also working to kind of connect and facilitate conversations between other partners in the food system so that they can work together and increase their capacity and better serve the community,” Heckman said.

When asked if MOM could sustain the increase in families coming to the food pantry, Price was confident in the community that supports it.

“There's been an understanding of the need. I think there's been so much widespread coverage about these changes in FoodShare,” Price said. “So my hope is that there is that community understanding of this pending need.”

Price says it is really important for the community to contribute to help increase food security.

Food drives used to be a big part of food pantry supplies, but people were nervous about donating food during the pandemic. But now, MOM is trying to make that more common. Price says anyone can just pick up extra food from the grocery store and drop it off at the food pantry.

The Wisconsin DHS said community support is key.

“These additional funds provided to eligible Wisconsinites because of COVID-19 have made a real difference,” the department said on its website. “With Congress deciding to end these federal funds, community support for local resources like food pantries and food banks will be more important than ever.”

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