The federal government shutdown from December 22, 2018 – January 25, 2019 created an unprecedented disruption in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI) in partnership with University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Advisors sought and received an Opportunity Grant from the University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, to conduct a cross-sectional qualitative study to capture California SNAP participants' experiences during the benefit disruption. The study aim was to ascertain how the disruption affected participants' food security, health, and well being. Data were collected February and March 2019 in four focus groups with low-income adults in Los Angeles, Tuolumne, San Mateo, and San Francisco. The study was published in the journal Nutrients on June 23, 2020 by Wendi Gosliner, Ken Hecht, Elsa Esparza and Lorrene Ritchie from NPI in collaboration with Wei-Ting Chen from Stanford University (affiliated with UCCE at the time of the study), and Cathryn Johnson and Natalie Price from UCCE. Participants in the study reported that:
- SNAP benefits generally are too low for participants to afford an adequate, healthy diet. Despite much effort to manage limited food budgets, participants routinely run out of money for food.
- Eligibility determinations for SNAP feel overly restrictive, especially in high cost-of living areas, and the program is not adequately agile to respond in a timely way to frequent changes in participants' employment or other circumstances.
- Customer service and communications between SNAP offices and participants show room for improvement. The 2019 benefit disruption highlighted challenges in communications; few participants reported being informed about the disruption in a timely manner, if at all, and most reported confusion.
- Some participants described the 2019 benefit disruption as providing temporary relief from routine end-of-the-month scarcity; overall, the disruption caused a great deal of emotional stress, heightened food insecurity, and increased financial distress.
- The disruption resulted in many participants feeling more insecure about their SNAP benefits, and some losing faith in the government.
Participants recommended SNAP policy and program changes to:
- Improve benefit adequacy by increasing benefit levels.
- Modify eligibility and benefit formulas to better address high costs-of-living as well as the expenses associated with working (e.g., transportation, childcare).
- Improve customer service and communications.
- Prevent future disruptions.