MONTPELIER -- In late June, about 16,400 Vermont households received a letter and $21 dollars from the state. The allowance arrived in time to prevent the families from losing an average of $60 a month in food stamp benefits that was cut from the Farm Bill passed by Congress this year.
The cuts took effect July 1 and included changes that could have prevented poor Vermonters from receiving certain food stamp benefits under a program that ties those benefits to heating assistance.
That timeliness is "what we really applaud the governor for," said Marissa Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, adding that it would have been a "major loss" for families if the state hadn't acted.
The effort came as part of Vermont's $407,400 investment in fuel assistance (LIHEAP) funding this year, which will leverage $15 million in federal food stamp dollars.
Dave Yacovone, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families confirmed that all Vermont families who are part of the "heat and eat" program will receive the money necessary to retain their food benefits.
When Congress passed the Farm Bill in early February, the measure cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- known in Vermont as 3SquaresVT or food stamps -- by $8.6 billion dollars over 10 years. Vermont was one of the 17 northern states that participate in the "heat and eat" program that would be disproportionately affected by the cuts.
The Farm Bill more than tripled the minimum in fuel assistance necessary to receive food stamps. Previously, low-income households that paid rent that includes heat received a nominal $3 or $5 annual check in heating assistance from the state, which qualified them for increased 3SquaresVT food assistance. Under Congress's new measure, those households must now receive more than $20 annually.
Vermont agreed to pay the difference, providing families with the funding they needed to qualify for the additional food dollars.
Eligibility requirements did not change, according to Richard Moffi, Fuel Assistance Program Chief for DCF.
"Nothing that the state did affected eligibility," Moffi said. "It's the same two months ago as it is today. The only thing that changed is the size of the benefit for 16,400 households."
As long as the two programs remain linked, Parisi said, the state will keep sending out the $21 checks annually to make sure families can qualify for the additional food stamp assistance.
If the state had not acted to restore the benefits, those households would have lost an average of $60 a month in food assistance, Hunger Free Vermont reported.
Once it heard the federal government would eliminate the benefits, the Economic Services Division of the Department of Children and Families went to the Legislature. ESD had the support of the governor and the measure easily passed in both chambers.
"It wasn't controversial," Yacovone said. "It's a really good return on investment."
Parisi agreed, adding that the proposed cuts would extend much further than to a few families. The cuts wouldn't have "only hurt our children, our parents, our elders, but it would hurt our economy, too," she said.
In December, Yacovone said, the federal government cut 3SquaresVT benefits by $10 million. If the Legislature had not put up the difference, an additional $10 million to $15 million (in food stamp money) would have been lost.
That loss would have caused a hardship for Vermont families, Yacovone said.
"Sixty dollars a month is significant for families when you're challenged by all the pressures that come with poverty."
If that money hadn't come through, he said, "it makes it harder for kids and elders to get the nutrition they need."