A mile-long line for free food offers a warning as Covid food stamp benefits end

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As he claimed the first spot in a mile-long line for free food in the Appalachian foothills, Danny Blair vividly recalled receiving the letter announcing that his pandemic-era benefit to help buy groceries was about to be slashed.

Kentucky lawmakers had voted to end the state’s health emergency last spring, by default cutting food stamp benefits created to help vulnerable Americans like Blair weather the worst of covid-19. Instead of $200 a month, he would get just $30.

He crumpled up the letter and threw it on the floor of his camper.

“I thought, ‘Wow, the government is trying to kill us now,’” said Blair, 63, who survives on his Social Security disability check and lives in a mobile home with his wife after their house burned down five years ago. “They are going to starve us out.”

Blair and his wife hop into their truck twice a month at 4 a.m. to ensure they get a few staples at the Hazel Green Food Project’s giveaway. On a recent Friday, they waited nine hours until local prisoners on work duty started loading bags of meat and vegetables, potato chips and cookies into vehicles in one of the nation’s most impoverished communities.

The latest cuts to one of the nation’s vital social safety net programs will limit how much food an estimated 31 million Americans will be able to afford each month, testing whether the Biden administration and state leaders can take away assistance without exacerbating a growing food insecurity crisis.

Over the past year, 18 states, including Kentucky, ended official states of emergency and rescinded the covid food benefit. For the other 32 states as well as the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam, Congress mandated in December that the extra help sunset in March.