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Local applications for SNAP benefits follows state trends

OBSERVER photos The number of Chautauqua County residents applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program dropped in May, June and July, which coincides with a federal stimulus program that provided an additional $600 in unemployment benefits. Applications, since the program ended, have gone up locally. Local farmers markets have also reported strong sales attributed to an increase in SNAP use.

The number of Chautauqua County residents looking for help getting food during the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be following trends seen elsewhere in New York state.

Applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — which issues electronic benefits that can be used like cash to purchase food — rose in the county from 580 in August 2019 to 687 this year, according to information from the county Department of Social Services. As of Monday, 452 were seeking SNAP benefits in September, compared to 681 for all of September in 2019.

Applications were down in March, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. A month later that number increased, from 695 SNAP applications in April 2019 to 784 applications in April of this year.

Those seeking food assistance then dropped significantly in May, June and July of this year. That coincided with the federal stimulus program in response to the coronavirus that provided an additional $600 in unemployment benefits.

“We noticed a significant decline when the pandemic unemployment benefits were in place and then an increase when those benefits ended,” said Jon Anderson, deputy commissioner of the county Department of Social Services. “We were actually receiving less applications during most of pandemic with the exception of April and August.”

According to county data, the number of SNAP applications went from 679 in May 2019 to 504 in May of this year; 594 in June 2019 to 429 in June of this year; and 661 in July 2019 to 362 in June of this year.

The increase in SNAP applications in August makes sense, Anderson noted. “The increase in August is definitely due to the pandemic unemployment benefits ending as of July 31,” he said.

In September, New York residents began receiving $300 weekly federal unemployment benefits.

The dip and rebound in SNAP benefit seekers locally matches that seen elsewhere. The Albany Times Union reported last week that Albany County was seeing an unprecedented increase in SNAP applications, from 974 in August 2019 to 1,322 this year. In the first week of September, the county had 820 applications for SNAP benefits, compared to 135 in 2019. In total, there were 926 applications last September.

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy told the Times Union the increase was due to the coronavirus and subsequent loss of jobs caused by the shutdown to stop its spread.

“The issue of food insecurity really has become more widespread as we’ve been shutdown,” McCoy told the Albany newspaper. “These number’s we’ve never seen in my eight years as county executive.”

The use of SNAP benefits has helped increased sales at local farmers markets. Anneliese Bruegel, market manager for the Fredonia Farmers Market, reported record SNAP sales in August.

“It’s been really amazing,” she said. “It’s a bit more crowded than I like, but people are wearing their masks and that’s the important thing. What’s been really amazing is the SNAP sales that we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing record SNAP sales and it’s really good for several reasons. They’re getting fresh vegetables for one and we also do the Double Up Food Bucks program where they can double their money for free for fruits and vegetables.”

The Jamestown Public Market also reported its most successful day in the history of the market in August.

“If it keeps going, we’re aiming to do better than we’ve ever done before,” said Linnea Carlson, market director. “So far, there has been an 18% increase in customer sales compared to last year.”

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