Oklahoma residents utilizing the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program saw a decrease in the amount of money issued each month for groceries. In February 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service ended the emergency allotments added to clients’ SNAP totals since April 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Citizen Potawatomi Nation Workforce Development & Social Services serves many clients who also receive SNAP benefits. The Community Services Block Grant program provides support in a variety of ways based on income and household size. Clients can apply for help with utility bills and rent once in a 12-month period.
WFSS Counselor Michelle Ramirez called the pandemic federal government assistance, including the increased SNAP dollars, “unbelievable.”
“(My clients) were so, so appreciative. It was much needed because people were getting sick, people were dying, everything was shut down. So, it was a different time. And now, we’re back to regular work,” she said.
Ramirez said the tide is swinging in the opposite direction now. She began working as the WFSS counselor five years ago, and this fiscal year saw the most clients apply for assistance with utilities or rent. WFSS serves approximately 300 clients each fiscal year (ending in September), and that number reached 290 in May 2023. In interviews with Ramirez, they often mention the cost of groceries and recent reduction in SNAP benefits.
“When I say, ‘What’s going on? Did something unexpected happen?’ They’re like, ‘Well, nothing unexpected or bad. It’s just the cost of everything. And I used my electric bill money (for groceries) hoping I would get some help,’” she said.
Since the beginning of the year, CPN’s FireLake Discount Foods has experienced an overall 10 to 12 percent reduction in SNAP benefits that the stores redeem. FDF Director Richard Driskill noted a correlation between that and the end of additional pandemic funds.
However, FDF’s statistics also show an increase in sales as well as a reduction in the number of items per transaction. Driskill attributes that largely to inflation, which is at the highest rate since the 1970s.
“Just the nature of food prices being so much higher than what they were prior to COVID is definitely taking a toll on a lot of people, including those that were getting extra SNAP benefits,” he said.
The FireLake grocery stores have noticed more people “trading down,” or buying cheaper store brand goods. Driskell and customers have also noticed manufacturers decreasing the amount of product in an individual unit, such as fewer chips in a bag, while keeping the price equal or slightly increasing it. Driskell called it “shrinkflation.”
“The net effect is generally it’s a lot more of an increase in price,” he said. “But people really don’t see that because they just see the overall price of the product has changed very little, but the amount of ounces and things put into that has decreased quite a bit.”
Ramirez hears about inflation from her clients often.
“They’ll say, ‘We just can’t do it. What are we supposed to do?’” she said.
Ramirez presents her clients options for stretching their dollar further. She provides locations and names of food pantries as well as resources at other tribes. CPN WFSS also has a program that helps clients pay for gas if their doctor’s appointment is more than a 25-mile round trip. The number of requests for gas cards has “gone up tremendously,” according to Ramirez.
“(It used to be that) only our elders were utilizing it, but now all ages are utilizing it really,” she said.
People often use SNAP benefits to purchase staples hit hardest by inflation, including fresh meat, produce, milk, bread and eggs. According to Driskell, FDF knows its customers feel the high prices across their budget and want to “reduce the burden.” On Mother’s Day weekend in May, FireLake Discount Foods hosted its first two-day sale since the pandemic began. Customers looked forward to sales prior to the pandemic.
“We try to take the items that are the most purchased and are probably the most sensitive that people use the most. And we try to make a smaller margin on those, if you will, and put those out there where it doesn’t really cost as much,” Driskell said.
FDF plans to continue to hold two-day sales each quarter and make their weekly ads appealing to customers. In June, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported decreased inflation to 4 percent, the lowest since May 2021. Inflation rates may continue to improve for consumers, and Driskell has noticed more of a balance in distributors’ prices.
“Right now, they at least seem to be leveling off as opposed to continually having increases, multiple of them every week, so that’s good news,” he said. “But, it’d be even better news if we kind of see a lot of these prices start to go down where we can continue to help the consumer out with getting our prices lower.”