County benefits and programs are more important than ever since COVID-19 hit. The pandemic has caused a number of reduced hours and layoffs in the county. 

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, is one program in Waseca County, through Minnesota Prairie Alliance, that helps low income people buy food to provide a nutritious and balanced meal.

“People don't like to think about it, but there are people in our communities who are hungry and don't have enough to eat," Minnesota Prairie Alliance Income and Health Care Assistance Manager Cathy Skogen said. "SNAP helps them put food on the table and the benefits aren't enough to provide a whole food budget for the month. This is just a way to help supplement it.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services website there are more than 500,000 Minnesotans — children, adults, families and seniors — who participate in the nutrition assistance program. MN Prairie Alliance serves Dodge, Steele and Waseca County. 

When the pandemic started, Skogen said SNAP did not receive a large increase in applicants. She suspects this is because many didn’t qualify for benefits, due to the additional $600 a week from federal benefits through unemployment many received.

Since the end of the additional $600 through unemployment at the end of July, Skogen has seen a slight increase in applications for SNAP benefits as well as cash assistance.

SNAP and cash assistance use the same application process. The application is available through the MN Prairie website with instructions. Cash assistance can be used for emergency programs, general assistance, refugee assistance and other options listed on the MN Prairie website.

“We've seen a steady amount of applications during the pandemic,” Skogen said. “I don't know that we've seen an uptick until recently with people receiving the federal benefits.”

The average number of applicants for cash assistance and SNAP in Waseca County went from about 12 per week in April, May and June to an average of 23 per week in August, after the additional unemployment dollars expired.

Skogen said from last year compared to 2020, there has been an increase of 11 percent in applications, that includes SNAP and cash assistance.

“We do need to be aware as the number of people requesting services increases, we still have a limited number of staff, so we anticipate there might be a challenge to help people as timely as we want in the future," Skogen said. "It’s possible that if we see a big influx in applications there might be a backlog, but we will do our best and we have been in this situation before.”

The amount of benefits a person receives depends on the number of people in the household and their income.

Those approved for the program receive benefits on an Electronic Benefit Transfer card, EBT, that is distributed on a plastic card that is used to buy food at local stores. Each month the benefits will be credited to the EBT card for use.

If someone is already a part of Women, Infants and Children, WIC, benefits they can still apply for SNAP benefits and will most likely be eligible for SNAP. 

There are new applications every week, but not everyone who applies is approved.

Staff looks at the proper documentation, needs of the applicant and interviews the applicant before they are approved or denied. Skogen said people on food assistance usually have a six-month review and an annual re-certification, while reporting changes throughout the period.

The money can be used on fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy products, breads, snack foods and other foods. SNAP does not allow people to purchase hygiene products, cosmetics, pet food, alcohol or tobacco, paper products, food eaten in store and other items.

A full list of what can and can’t be bought with SNAP is available on the Minnesota Department of Human Services website.

Reach Reporter Bailey Grubish at 507-837-5451 or follow her on Twitter @wcnbailey. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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