A new publication from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) titled Heat and Eat: Using Federal Nutrition Programs to Soften Low-Income Households’ Food/Fuel Dilemma provides information to state and local officials, social service caseworkers, LIHEAP offices, utility staff, community-based organizations, food banks and advocates on maximizing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called Food Stamps) benefits.
It outlines a number of strategies that can help struggling households access federal nutrition programs to help reduce hunger, mitigate the hardship of increasingly higher food costs, high energy and shelter costs, increased unemployment, and job insecurity.
The report notes that as home energy costs increase, poor families are hit harder: “Poor families then tend to spend a larger share of income on shelter cost and less on food to compensate, and eat less as a result, while better-off families, even while paying rising fuel bills, spend more on food when it gets colder. The little that poor families have left to spend on food after paying for their heat does not go very far.”
The report's recommended strategies include:
1) Extend SNAP participation and increase benefits to low-wage working households with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
2) Maximize shelter deductions, including the utility deduction. The report explains how states should look for ways to maximize the shelter deduction by claiming all potential housing and utility costs, screening for new or excess heating or cooling charges, and investigating opportunities that may involve LIHEAP.
For example, states like Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont have encouraged their state LIHEAP agencies to provide a nominal cash LIHEAP benefit (one dollar to five dollars annually) directly to SNAP households who would not otherwise receive a LIHEAP benefit. This special LIHEAP benefit simplifies the shelter calculation and significantly increases SNAP benefits for thousands of households. It also helps the LIHEAP agency meet its outreach obligations by targeting low-income households receiving SNAP who may be unfamiliar with LIHEAP.
3) Ensure that SNAP benefits are not being reduced based on receipt of LIHEAP or other payments that help families with utility costs. LIHEAP benefits and other heating assistance payments made by third parties are excluded as countable income under SNAP.
4) Increase outreach activities to enroll low-income households facing food insecurity.
5) Increase benefits for elders and persons with disabilities.