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'Everyone just needs a second chance': COVID-19 food stamps benefits extend through February

The Chapel Hill Affordable Housing office, located in Town Hall, is helping to coordinate with NCDHHS to provideocal households with max Food and Nutrition Services through February.

North Carolinians who receive food stamps will continue to get the maximum amount allocated for their household through the month of February, according to aNorth Carolina Department of Health and Human Services press release.

Regardless of the program that they qualify for, those who qualify for food stamps through Food and Nutrition Services have been granted the maximum allotment of benefits since March 2020. The allotments are based on each FNS recipient's household size.

The NCDHHS also announced on Feb. 4 that the FNS program has expanded participation in its Online Purchasing Program from seven retailers to 11 in hopes of making food even more accessible for those who receive aid. 

The monetary supplements will be automatically added to recipients' Electronic Benefit Transfer cards.

In addition, benefits will be distributed to recipient groups each workday until all eligible FNS cases have been granted their supplements. Supplements issued after February will be provided weekly.

COVID-19 burdens

The benefits are part of an effort to help ease overall burdens brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"COVID certainly caused massive workplace disruptions over the last two years and hurt people’s earnings," Lindsey Shewmaker, human services manager at the Orange County Department of Social Services, wrote in an email.

NCDHHS Press Assistant Summer Tonizzo also noted that COVID-19-related issues had a large impact on families.

"By providing families the maximum allotment of FNS benefits during the pandemic, households are able to purchase food to support their families despite pandemic-related hardships that they may face," Tonizzo wrote in an email.  

According to the N.C. Justice Center, the number of North Carolinians who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a federal food stamps program, to purchase food increased by 29 percent during the pandemic, as of July 2021.

Sarah Viñas, director of affordable housing and community connections with the Town of Chapel Hill, said there have been good things that emerged from the pandemic to help supplement the financial provision of FNS with food distribution.

“One of the great things that has happened through the pandemic is that a lot of the local food access organizations have really come together and made their services even more robust than they were pre-pandemic," she said.

Viñas also said food distribution is made possible through local food banks and pantries. 

“The Town, which previously had regular food distributions within our public housing neighborhoods, has expanded that and created a larger distribution that takes place on a weekly basis on Wednesday mornings at the Eubanks parking lot," she said. "And, we generally are serving around 300 households per week.” 

Food insecurity 

Viñas said that low-income people face difficult decisions on a daily basis.

She added that oftentimes low-income individuals have to decide between important things like purchasing food, getting school supplies, buying medications or paying rent.

“For people who work in the service sector or other low wage jobs, or people who are on a fixed income due to disability, their options are really limited for how they can meet their needs," Viñas said.

Laura Malinchock, the board vice president for PORCH, a grassroots volunteer-led hunger organization, said low-income families deserve to have all of their basic needs met. 

“Food is just one of the elements," Malinchock said. "It's kind of an indicator of a need, but it's not the only need that our families and communities have.” 

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PORCH offers programs that provide food for families, schools and food pantries. It also has a Food for Thought program, which works to advocate for legislation that provides avenues to overcome poverty like fair living wages, affordable housing and social security. 

Rousbeh Zibaie, a Chapel Hill resident who benefits from food stamps, said the assistance has helped him cope with the pressures, anxiety and hardship that COVID-19 exacerbated for people with mental health conditions and immunocompromising illnesses like himself. 

“Some people think people with mental health conditions are lazy or slow or can't do thing," Zibaie said. "But really it's just different. People can't all work the same way. Everyone just needs a second chance to be a part of something and then they can do it.”

Zibaie is a member of Club Nova, a Chapel Hill nonprofit that serves neurodivergent individuals with financial, social and psychiatric assistance. 

Club Nova Executive Director Karen Dunn said poverty and mental illness are things that add stress to peoples lives who deserve grace and assistance. 

“The extra food stamps are a good first step,” Dunn said. “But fixing food insecurity requires a significant shift in our culture and society and policy. It revolves around how we work with people who are economically disadvantaged or have mental disabilities.”

Residents can visit this website to find more information about receiving FNS supplements.


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