By BRENNA GRITEMAN
LIFE EDITOR

Over 5,000 Hancock County residents relying on food assistance will be left without a safety net if the federal government shutdown extends into March.

To protect SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants’ access to February benefits, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with all 50 states to issue February benefits earlier than usual.

Randall Galbraith, director of Hancock County Job and Family Services, says the early allocation for the approximately 5,400 county residents receiving SNAP benefits began Wednesday, and the majority have already been distributed.

Galbraith said SNAP recipients will not receive their benefits on their normal February date and are being reminded to carefully budget their balance, since they will not receive another allocation of assistance until March — assuming that the partial government shutdown has ended by then.

Galbraith said rumors that food assistance funds will disappear from users’ debit cards in February are untrue. In reality, quickly spending those dollars is highly discouraged.

“We don’t want people to panic, but we do want people to understand that there will be no funds in February, no additional funds being allocated,” he said.

According to Galbraith, the amount of SNAP benefits allocated are dependent on the recipient’s individual circumstances. An average Hancock County recipient household receives $270 per month, or about $70 a week.

“Food assistance, by design, is a supplemental approach,” Galbraith said, adding that government nutrition benefits are not intended to serve as a household’s primary source of sustenance.

Participants who have a SNAP case pending, or those who are awaiting their annual case redetermination, are being urged to contact Job and Family Services as soon as possible, as no verifications can be completed after Feb. 1.

Funding remains in place through Jan. 30, and Galbraith urged people to contact his office to get signed up. He said the agency is attempting to contact all known recipients who have not sought redetermination.

“I think we’re going to get everyone we possibly can picked up and get their benefits issued,” Galbraith said.

According to the USDA, SNAP benefits can be used to buy household foods including breads, cereals, fruits and vegetables, meat, fish and poultry, dairy products, and seeds and plants which produce food for a household to eat.

Benefits cannot be used to purchase beer, wine or liquor, cigarettes or other tobacco items, soap or other household supplies, paper products, vitamins, medicine or pet food.

Linda Hamilton, CEO of the West Ohio Food Bank, said the USDA announced Jan. 8 that all federal nutrition programs would be funded through February.

If the partial government shutdown continues into March, however, USDA will lack the funds to make new food purchases. That will leave no money available to support Commodity Assistance Programs, including the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) or Senior Box program; and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

Hamilton said the West Ohio Food Bank also relies on administrative grants to offset the cost of storing and distributing foods, and those grants would no longer be available.

Hamilton said there is simply no way that even fully stocked food banks can make up for lost SNAP benefits. For every meal provided by the Feeding America Network, which supports a variety of federal food assistance programs, for instance, SNAP provides 12 meals, she said.

Hamilton said even if USDA reopens in time to issue March benefits, many families will still need to rely on food banks due to the gap in benefits from late January to late March.

“We are treating this man-made disaster like we would a natural disaster,” Hamilton said. “We are coordinating with our hunger relief network to respond to increased need. We are here to help.”

Food distribution by the West Ohio Food Bank is open to anyone in need. Recipients must show a photo ID and proof of residence.

Individuals from the agency’s 11-county service area (Allen, Auglaize, Hancock, Hardin, Mercer, Paulding, Putnam, Seneca, Shelby, Van Wert and Wyandot) are eligible to preregister for distributions, while supplies last. Upcoming distribution events include:

• Jan. 26: University of Findlay, 300 Davis St.; 9 a.m. until all the food has been distributed.

• Jan. 26: Fostoria Church of God, 124 W. Tiffin St., Fostoria; 8 a.m. until all the food has been distributed.

• Feb. 8: West Ohio Food Bank, 1380 E. Kibby St., Lima; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (preregistration required beginning at 10 a.m. Jan. 28 at www.eventbrite.com — search “West Ohio Food Bank”).

• Feb. 9: West Ohio Food Bank; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (preregistration required from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 28 by calling 567-328-6825 or 567-328-6142).

Call the West Ohio Food Bank at 419-222-7946 for a referral to a food pantry near you.

The United Way of Hancock County maintains an online calendar of daily supplemental food resources, which can be found at https://www.liveunitedhancockcounty.org/food-calendar.

The schedule includes things like church food pantries and food box distributions, along with hot meal service times at the City Mission of Findlay.

Core hours for Hancock County Job and Family Services are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., though Galbraith said the office will be staffed until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Call 419-422-0182 for an appointment.

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Twitter: @BrennaGriteman

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