Those applying, or in the process of re-applying, for food stamp benefits have an important deadline to keep in mind for next week because of the ongoing government shutdown.

By the end of the day on Tuesday, those applying for 3SquaresVT benefits, or who are in the process of renewing those benefits, need to contact the Department for Children and Families, said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont. Those who don’t will not receive their benefits for February.

Horton said those who need to complete an interview for their application should call 1-877-403-7668 immediately. Those who are in the process of applying, being re-certified, who need to complete an interim report or who’ve had documents requested of them by DCF need to send those papers in right away. Those with questions should call the DCF Benefits Service Center at 1-800-479-6151.

Hunger Free Vermont does outreach and education for 3SquaresVT on DCF’s behalf, said Horton. The group will post information related to food benefits and the shutdown on its website, www.hungerfreevt.org/government-shutdown.

The phone lines at DCF are expected to be busy, as there are about 70,000 in Vermont who use 3SquaresVT, Horton said. She advised people placed on hold to remain on the line until they’re helped.

Monica Taylor, development director for Hunger Free Vermont, said that as of August 2018, there were 3,320 Washington County households on the program, reflecting 5,606 people for a total allotment of $728,025.

Taylor said there were 5,037 households in Rutland County receiving 3SquaresVT benefits in August. That’s 8,509 people, with a total allotment of $1,071,798.

“We are definitely now beginning to see the cost of the shutdown on the hunger programs,” Horton said.

The shutdown entered its 21st day Friday. It began when President Donald Trump declined to sign a spending agreement passed by Congress because it didn’t contain funds for a wall along the southern border.

Budget accordingly

3SquaresVT is the state-level name for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which flows from the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to a statement from Sean Brown, DCF deputy commissioner, the USDA has authorized SNAP benefits for February to be issued early, on Jan. 20.

Brown told recipients to “budget and plan accordingly.”

According to Horton, the USDA has money for February’s 3SquaresVT benefits, but not for the following month, should the shutdown persists.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” she said Friday. “If this shutdown continues, we will be facing a hunger crisis all over this country.”

News of the Tuesday deadline for certain 3SquaresVT recipients only came Thursday, Horton said, leaving her agency and others working fast to spread the word. She believes most people will do what they need to in order to get their February benefits, but inevitably there will be some who don’t.

Stress on food banks

Horton said 3SquaresVT benefits won’t cover a person for a month, and many receiving them make use of food pantries, food shelves and food banks.

John Sayles, chief executive officer of the Vermont Foodbank, which helps supply shelves, pantries and meal sites with food, said he also expects most people who need to meet the Tuesday deadline will do so. If the shutdown extends to where regular 3SquaresVT benefits are threatened, then the Foodbank will work something out with its partners.

“There’s only so much we can do,” he said Friday.

The Vermont Foodbank doesn’t sit on large stockpiles of food, he said. A little less than one-third of the Foodbank’s stock comes from the USDA.

Tom Donahue, CEO of BROC-Community Action in Southwestern Vermont, which runs a food pantry, said many of the people it helps with food are also on 3SquaresVT, as neither on their own will see a person through a month.

He said BROC will prepare for the worst, and come February will ramp up its efforts to secure food donations. He said numerous local businesses donate to BROC, including large supermarkets and small independent businesses.

BROC screens people who come to it to see whether they qualify for 3SquaresVT benefits. Of the 4,072 people it screened last year, only 1,005 weren’t using 3SquaresVT. He said this issue may affect thousands of people.

Meanwhile in D.C.

Friday was also the first day many federal workers missed their scheduled paychecks.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said Friday he’s asking Vermont federal employees and contractors who need help to contact his office at 802-652-2450 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“My highest priority is reopening federal government and getting federal employees and contractors back to work for the American people,” said Welch in a statement. “In the meantime, my office is ready to assist, where possible, Vermonters affected by this unnecessary shutdown.”

keith.whitcomb @rutlandherald.com

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