With one thirty-five-day federal government shutdown behind them, Durham County Social Services officials are preparing for what another government shutdown could mean for the federal food assistance that more than seventeen thousand Durham households rely on.

About $4.5 million in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds—also known as food stamps—are distributed each month in Durham County, helping about 36,500 individuals buy groceries. As the recent partial government shutdown became the longest in U.S. history, social services officials had no idea if and when the next round of SNAP benefits would be released to recipients.

“I’ve been doing this for twenty-eight years, and I never thought I’d see SNAP shut down, but we got pretty close,” DCSS director Ben Rose last week.

Though the shutdown ended January 25, President Trump only agreed to fund government agencies through February 15 while Democrats and Republicans negotiate over funding for border security. That means another shutdown could begin next Saturday.

So on Thursday, DCSS convened stakeholders to prepare to meet additional needs for food assistance in the event of another prolonged shutdown—whether that comes next week or in the future. The meeting drew representatives from Social Services, county administration, area food banks, and community organizations.

Rose said he’s optimistic the government will stay open, “but we have to be realistic that we’re probably not completely out of the woods.” 

Participants talked about preparing for another shutdown like they would a natural disaster. Brad Blackwell, benefits outreach manager for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, said the organization would go into “disaster mode.” The food bank is still in disaster mode after hurricanes that struck North Carolina this fall, he added.

While in a natural disaster, local agencies could rely on partners throughout the country that weren’t in disaster mode for help, under a government shutdown, the same need would be felt everywhere. Throughout the meeting, the normal means of filling unmet food needs were traced back to federal dollars that, like SNAP, would be squeezed or unavailable in a shutdown.

During the shutdown, Blackwell said, the food bank got fewer supplies from the federal government than expected. Free meals served in public schools are supported by federal dollars. Even grocery stores—which could be tapped for food donations—would suffer from lost income by not receiving food stamps. Many residents who receive SNAP benefits also rely on support from other federal government agencies that could be affected by a shutdown, such as housing assistance.

DCSS gets more than 50 percent of its funding from the federal government—for things like SNAP, employment programs, child care, emergency financial assistance, and administrative costs.

“It’s very hard for Durham County to supplement the loss of a major federal program,” Rose said. “We have a lot of dependency on this program. Our families rely on SNAP to help them get through the month and meet their other needs.”

The group discussed whether the Board of Commissioners could make a bulk food purchase to help stock Durham’s sixty food pantries, how local agencies could help alleviate other costs—like transportation—for families that rely on SNAP benefits to free up income they could then spend on food, and if magistrates could delay eviction actions and utility companies could delay bills if a shutdown crippled the SNAP program. 

On Monday, county commissioners considered a resolution outlining the local impacts of SNAP, which, once finalized, they plan to send to other counties to co-sign, as well as to North Carolina’s representatives in Congress. Commissioner Ellen Reckhow suggested the board add to the resolution an appeal to keep SNAP benefits flowing during government shutdowns, just like Social Security and disability payments.

“Clearly, basic nutrition services should be considered a vital government service,” she said.

Before the shutdown ended, it was unclear whether February SNAP benefits would be funded. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, found the money and released February funds early, on January 20. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institute, that means about thirty million SNAP recipients may wait more than forty days until their March benefits are released. Depending on when they receive their monthly benefits, another eight million people may have to wait more than fifty days before their SNAP benefits are loaded to their EBT cards.

As the CBPP explains, the resolution that reopened the government will fund March SNAP benefits regardless of whether the government shuts down again on February 15. (Should the government remain shut down, that funding may not arrive in April and subsequent months.) But there will still be a gap between when February benefits were released early and when March benefits come. In Durham County, for example, the release of benefits is spread out during the first half of the month. 

No matter what happens with the federal government, Rose said Durham County may need to help SNAP recipients who run out of benefits before they get the next round. 

The program is designed to supplement, rather than cover, a household’s food needs. Still, the CBPP says, “it’s well-documented that SNAP benefits normally run out for most households at the end of the month.” According to the CBPP, households redeem more than half of their SNAP benefits within a week of getting them.

This story was first published on February 1 and has been updated and edited for print. Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at swillets@indyweek.com, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @sarah_willets. 

If you have questions about your SNAP benefits, call your social worker at DSS. If you need help getting food, find your nearest food pantry at foodbankcenc.org or foodbankcenc.org/about/zip or call 800-358-8189. The Durham Farmers Market accepts SNAP and matches SNAP transactions dollar for dollar, up to $10 through its Double Bucks program.