Photo by Hajira Fuad

Ricaria Williams, 45, has received federal funding for groceries for the past five years. Born in Maryland and raised in D.C., Williams became homeless shortly after losing her job in 2010. She and her daughter, Journi, who is now 13 years old, were eventually placed in a shelter. After five years in the shelter system, Williams was able to obtain a housing voucher and moved into an apartment with her daughter in southwest D.C. last May.

With inflation increasing the cost of food, Williams said that she has been struggling to put food on the table for her and her daughter. Her chronic health problems, which forces her to remain unemployed, has meant that Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are essential for her to provide for her family. 

Emergency SNAP benefits were set to expire this month. But, on April 12th, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services extended the emergency benefits period for an additional 90 days. This ensures that an additional $95 of benefits will remain on SNAP recipients’ accounts through July A household is eligible for SNAP benefits based on income, expenses and household size.

The extension will give people like Williams more food options over the next few months, but is far from a long-term solution to food insecurity. 

D.C.’s SNAP, previously known as food stamps, helps low income individuals and families purchase food. SNAP benefits are loaded onto an Electronic Benefits Transfer card (EBT), which can be used to purchase items at most grocery stores, convenience stores, and some online and in-person farmers markets. SNAP recipients receive a monthly maximum allotment on their EBT card. 

Since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, all states across the U.S. have provided SNAP-eligible individuals and households with additional emergency SNAP benefits. In April 2021, the Biden Administration implemented a policy where all SNAP households would be given at least $95 in emergency benefits on their EBT cards. The amount of additional benefits received by a SNAP household is the difference between their regular benefits and the maximum benefits a household of that size is eligible for, or $95—whichever is greater.

However, the April extension could very likely be the last, because officials have not made plans to extend the program after July. The constant uncertainty of when exactly emergency SNAP allocations will expire doesn’t exactly make it easier for families, either.

If emergency benefits expire in 90 days, the rise in inflation, food costs and gas prices will further strain low-income families like Williams and her daughter. 

The Center for American Progress said that inflation and increasing food prices have eroded much of the spending power of additional SNAP benefits.

Food banks, markets and distribution centers around the District offer food stamp matching. These programs provide SNAP recipients with a dollar-for-dollar match on the SNAP benefits they spend at markets, along with home-delivered, specially crafted meals to ease the burden on people like Williams who may be struggling on SNAP benefits. 

“I’m not able to go out and earn money like how I should be able to. Some days I feel well, some days I don’t,” Williams said.

Ricaria Williams, left, pictured with her daughter, Journi. Courtesy of Ricaria Williams

Her last job was at Reagan National Airport. She worked as a ramp agent, loading bags and cargo onto planes and directing planes onto the terminal during landing. But, she said she was fired because of the amount of time she had to take off due to health issues.

In addition to having high blood pressure and diabetes, Williams lives with gastroparesis, a disease that obstructs the stomach’s ability to digest food properly and causes nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. This causes Williams to have monthly episodes of severe nausea that make working full-time difficult. 

Williams said she prefers not to go to food banks around her because she has trouble digesting the meals offered due to her gastroparesis.

“They give me a lot of starchy stuff, a lot of salty stuff,” she said. “I know there’s a thing where [people say], that if you’re hungry, you would accept anything. But that’s not absolutely true.”

Students in D.C. Public Schools who already qualify for free school meals are eligible to receive temporary emergency nutrition benefits.

Williams’ daughter attends private school through a scholarship, which eliminates Journi’s eligibility for the emergency food benefits offered to DCPS. students. 

“The food that they serve there, she doesn’t like it,” Williams said. “So it makes us have to buy extra food.”

Williams said that when the emergency SNAP benefits she is given expires, the change would be “detrimental” for her and her daughter.

FRESHFARM steps in to help

Angela Farkas, a market manager lead at FRESHFARM, a non-profit farmers market organization, said FRESHFARM will match SNAP benefits for shoppers who use their EBT cards at their various markets. She said the organization used to have a $10 cap on how much someone could spend at the market, but they removed the cap in 2020 and now match any amount SNAP users spend at FRESHFARM.

“[We] believe that if you’re starting with fresher food, it gives you a little bit more start into feeling better,” she said. 

FRESHFARM uses grant funding to offer their matching program, Farkas said. 

She said FRESHFARM also doubles the benefits for women, children and seniors on the farmers market check program. The organization matches the value they are spending at all their markets, so an individual can exchange $20 in SNAP for $40 from FRESHFARM for money they can spend at any of their farmers markets. 

Farkas said the amount of people using SNAP benefits in Mosaic District and Arlington courthouse markets in Virginia increased during the course of the pandemic. 

“The great thing about the program is if you get it at one market, you could spend it at any of them,” she said. 

How two District-area food service centers are dealing with rising food costs

Jay Shepley, the director of communications for Food and Friends, which delivers specially tailored meals for people living with severe illnesses across the District area, said the price of all the food Food and Friends uses has increased over the course of the pandemic. The organization is asking for increased donations to offset growing food costs, he said. 

After food prices surged in 2021 due to pandemic-related supply chain shortages, the costs of food and grocery items are set to rise again this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Price’s Outlook report

The report predicts that food prices will increase about 4.5%-5% this year.

Shepley said about 80% of the people Food and Friends serve have a household income of less than $1,500 a month, meaning a large percentage of their customer base are on the SNAP program. 

“When their food stamps run out, it can be a very scary moment for them,” he said.

Transportation bottlenecks, labor shortages and major weather events impacted the way Food and Friends has ordered food and increased costs for everything , he said. 

Shepley said Food and Friends is adapting their services to an increased demand, due to the  pandemic. He said changing menu items to provide seasonal produce and decreasing the number of deliveries, while maintaining the same number of delivered food items, helped the organization cut costs throughout the pandemic. 

David Alvanes, who coordinates the North Capitol Food Pantry, also said the costs of food like fresh produce and meat has increased during the pandemic. To offset the rise in costs, he said North Capitol Food Pantry works with other organizations like the Capital Area Food Bank to get food donations or grant funding to purchase fresh meat and produce.

Alvanes said the dwindling of SNAP benefits at the end of each month leads to an increase in customers who visit the food pantry. The organization takes this into account by ordering and preparing more food ahead of time. 

“We’re growing, we’re learning from our mistakes, and learning how we can better service individuals by listening to the people that we serve, listening to their needs and adjusting that way,” he said.