As food benefits become scarce, mutual aid shows there’s plenty to go around

While thousands lose SNAP benefits, mutual aid groups share in abundance

By: - March 1, 2023 4:30 am
a group of ten people are shown in a commercial kitchen space, using a large table to organize and package supplies. they are wearing masks and gloves.

Volunteers with Albuquerque Mutual Aid combined donated supplies and food into care packages to be distributed to anyone in need. (Photo courtesy of Moneka Stevens)

More than half a million New Mexicans relying on food assistance saw a significant drop in their monthly benefits on Wednesday as the federal government suspended the pandemic expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

State officials have said they are expanding outreach to rural communities and communities of color to help people apply and reapply for SNAP.

But there is no proposal to simply keep these people on the SNAP program at the level of benefits they had during the formal public health emergency.

Part of the rationale for state and federal government officials who made the policy choice to allow expanded food benefits to expire is that the “emergency” phase of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is over.

“While the virus is not gone, thanks to the resilience of the American people, and the ingenuity of medicine, we have broken COVID’s grip on us,” President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address in February. “COVID deaths are down nearly 90%. We’ve saved millions of lives and opened our country back up. And soon we’ll end the public health emergency.”

For a family making $10.50 per hour, the end of federal COVID-SNAP support means a $5,612 decrease in annual SNAP benefits, according to the state Human Services Department, which oversees New Mexico’s SNAP program.

It’s taken as a given that people will keep getting kicked off the benefit rolls and having to work to get back on them, since public benefit programs “require” periodic reassessment of eligibility for benefits as a cost-saving measure.

But are these expanded public benefits like SNAP and Medicaid really something that only should exist in an emergency? Or are they actually what people needed all along?

For three mutual aid organizers in very different parts of New Mexico, the answer to that second question is a resounding yes.

“We are so far behind in extending what this society actually needs,” said Selinda Guerrero, with Albuquerque Mutual Aid.

For three years, the mutual aid collective has gathered donations of food and supplies, handing them out in care packages. Some are for unsheltered neighbors. Others are for private homes, apartments, motels, and trailers, said Moneka Stevens, with the local chapter of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party.

Stevens said any time SNAP benefits increased since the pandemic began in 2020, the number of requests for care packages went down.

Organizers became used to getting 100 requests per day, but saw it go down to 20 requests because the government increased its food aid, she said.

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Nearly 24% of New Mexicans rely on SNAP, the highest rate in the nation.

New Mexico has the third-highest rate of poverty in the U.S., at 18.4%, far exceeding the national rate of 12.8%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Contrary to the scarcity that drives the focus on costs when discussing these government programs, mutual aid instead shows that there is an abundance of resources. It just needs to be redistributed to those in need.

Walk into any one of the community swaps that are organized by mutual aid organizations in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and you’ll find clothing, furniture, kitchenware, hygiene products, over the counter medications, beds, and fresh local produce, Guerrero said.

“We get lots of apples, and okra,” Stevens said with a laugh. “It’s amazing, the abundance that’s out there. We have to find ways to get it out, because it’s so much.”

People living in rural New Mexico communities sometimes have to travel for hours to buy food, Stevens said. One of those communities is McKinley County, in the border region between New Mexico and Navajo Nation.

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When people get public assistance like SNAP, they start budgeting it into their lives, said Christopher Hudson, coordinator for the McKinley Community Health Alliance, a partner organization of McKinley Mutual Aid.

There is no way to revert these benefits without taking away what people are already budgeting, Hudson said.

“When bureaucracy takes it away, that’s when people’s budgets become unstable,” Hudson said. “Any cut to any social services is bad for any community.”

Another rationale for the end of these expanded benefits is that they will make people more likely to get a job.

In December, former New Mexico health secretary David Scrase told lawmakers he believes the drop in SNAP benefits would “drive people back into the workforce.”

“Not all of us need health care every day, right? But all of us need food every day, and so I think that will be the initial stimulus for families to reconsider their options and return to the workforce,” Scrase said in a meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee.

Scrase said he hopes tens of thousands of people will return to work.

The exploitation of labor is where inadequacies start, Guerrero said. Corporations like Walmart benefit from having low wages for their workers, while those workers themselves qualify for SNAP assistance, Guerrero said.

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Mutual aid breaks down the notion that one must “pull your own self up by your bootstraps, when most of us never had any,” Guerrero said.

Even though the term mutual aid was coined recently in history, Guerrero said, “what we know is that this is actually us speaking to our culture, speaking to what our communities have always known, and the way our people have always existed.”

She said mutual aid is a way of regrounding people to their culture, to the way their ancestors taught them and what their elders continue to teach them: “That we are a community who relies on each other, and my survival is your survival, and yours is mine.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.