Looking at Food Insecurity, Food Sovereignty and What TPSS Co-op is Doing to Help

Taylor Dibbert, TPSS Board of Representatives

On February 8 TPSS Co-op held an event on food insecurity. With pandemic-related assistance programs winding down, what might that mean for vulnerable people? What can we expect in terms of forthcoming advocacy or legislative initiatives? And what’s the Co-op been doing to promote food justice and food sovereignty in our community?

“The Hunger Cliff” addressed the previously mentioned questions and more. 

Allison Schnitzer, Food Access Initiatives Director at the Montgomery County Food Council, gave a broad overview of the food insecurity landscape in Montgomery County and beyond. She talked about food security efforts that occurred during the pandemic, including the creation of the Montgomery County Food Security Task Force, federal and county financial support for food assistance, and SNAP emergency allotments. (All SNAP recipients got the maximum benefit amount).

Schnitzer underscored the importance of SNAP and noted that “it is really considered the first line of defense against hunger.”

“It’s our nation’s most important anti-hunger program,” she said. In 2020, $79.2 billion was spent on SNAP, up from $60.4 billion in 2019. “It really allows residents to shop with dignity.”

She went on to talk about the administrative burdens associated with staying on SNAP; a lot of documentation and paperwork are required. “It also requires making this connection with the county or the state to confirm everything,” she said.

In addition, Schnitzer cited income and citizenship limits, and technology or language barriers as other challenges. She touched on the end of SNAP Emergency Allotments and the concomitant benefits cliff that many people are bound to face.

Crossroads Community Food Network Executive Director Lauren Goldberg and TPSS Co-op General Manager Mike Houston spoke about a new U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that the two organizations have received. The grant allows SNAP shoppers to double their buying power when they purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.

Goldberg emphasized that this additional buying power simply gives people more options. “Choice is something that’s really important to us,” she said.

Goldberg talked about the political climate in 2016 and 2017 and mentioned that many SNAP shoppers were afraid  to come to the Crossroads Farmers Market. People were afraid to be seen using their SNAP cards. Others were afraid to apply for SNAP for fear it would jeopardize their immigration status. 

This difficult situation meant that Crossroads was in possession of grant money and in search of a way to use it. It was at that point that Crossroads reached out to TPSS Co-op, which has been a longtime partner. So, during the spring of 2020, a SNAP-matching program at the Co-op was born. “Mike and others at the Co-op were great to work with,” said Goldberg. This pilot program got a four-year funding boost in November 2022. 

Houston talked about the way the pilot program changed the SNAP situation at the Co-op. From 2013 to 2019, SNAP sales were between 0.5% and 1% of all overall sales. And they were declining as a percentage of sales on an annual basis. These dynamics mirrored national trends. 

In 2020, $2,300 in SNAP sales were matched at the Co-op. “Starting in 2021 the program really started to take off at the Co-op,” Houston noted. “At the end of 2021, we had matched $39,000.” 

What’s more, the Co-op’s overall SNAP sales went from 1% to 2.5%. “In Produce, SNAP sales went from 1.5 to 5.4 [percent], a 250% increase. In real dollars [the Co-op] went from $70,000 in SNAP sales to $213,000,” said Houston. The program kept growing in 2022. The Co-op matched $69,000 in 2022; overall SNAP sales at the Co-op amounted to almost 3% of total sales.

JD Robinson, Anti-Hunger Project Coordinator – SNAP at Maryland Hunger Solutions, covered the policy implications and legislative opportunities pertaining to food insecurity – both nationally and in Maryland.

Robinson highlighted the imminent decrease in benefits. He talked about the “pretty remarkable decline” in SNAP participation in Maryland last year.

He too spoke about SNAP Emergency Allotments that are due to end at the end of this month. “Across the board, everyone’s going to see a reduction in their benefits,” said Robinson. He estimated that these SNAP changes will translate into a loss of $70 million per month in Maryland. In terms of finding a way forward, Robinson hopes Maryland will look to other states for guidance, including a “benefit offramp” being implemented in Massachusetts.

The discussion was moderated by Elizabeth Teuwen, Vice-President of the Co-op’s Board of Representatives. About thirty people attended this one-hour event. 

The event served as a reminder that confronting food insecurity in our community remains a daunting task. Nevertheless, a lot of good work has been done in this space and there remain a variety of people and organizations who are ready to confront this challenge head-on.

But the event reminded me of something else: the Co-op truly is a lot more than a grocery store. It’s a place that’s bringing people together to discuss community challenges; a place that’s sharing vital information and resources; a place that’s partnering with nonprofits; a place that’s promoting food sovereignty; a place that’s doing its part to build a more equitable Takoma. 

Taylor Dibbert serves on TPSS Co-op’s Board of Representatives.