States race to distribute February food stamps amid shutdown

38M recipients to get February benefits early

By TAMI LUHBY, CNN
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(CNN) - The nation's 38 million food stamp recipients will get their February benefits early amid the partial government shutdown.

State officials say their allotments will be loaded onto electronic benefit transfer cards by Sunday, rather than next month. That's the only way the federal government can make the payment since the program initially wasn't funded beyond January.

The US Department of Agriculture announced last week that it is using a provision allowing it to make obligated payments within 30 days of a government funding lapse. The shutdown began after funding ran out December 21.

The change has left states racing to issue the February benefits -- which are expected to total $4.8 billion -- by January 20. Typically, states issue benefits over the course of a month, in part to make sure grocery stores have enough food and to provide them with a steady stream of customers. Households receive $245 a month, on average.

State officials are working closely with the federal agency to speed up payments, and all are expected to be able to comply, said Ann Flagg, director of the Collaborative Centers for Policy & Practice at the American Public Human Services Association, which represents state and local health and human service agencies.

"It's certainly a compressed process with a high degree of urgency behind it," Flagg said, noting that some states have experience doing this because they have had to issue special disaster-related benefits to their residents.

Equally as important, however, is communicating to food stamp recipients that the money they are getting now is their February benefit, and they won't get more until March, at the earliest. At this point, the USDA doesn't have funding to guarantee food stamps will be issued in March if the budget impasse isn't resolved by then.

"Families should be mindful of this when they are planning their shopping for the month and budget accordingly," said Jeanne Lambrew, acting commissioner of Maine's Department of Health and Human Services, which paid the benefits on Thursday.

States are contacting recipients in a variety of ways, including social media, mail, text messages and notices to grocery stores and community groups.

Florida, for instance, posted a message on Twitter alerting its 2.9 million residents in the program that they'll receive their benefits on January 20.

Delaware is sending letters to each of its more than 136,000 households who receive help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the formal name for food stamps. It is also contacting senior centers, houses of worship, legislators and retailers.

Federal officials last week said that new applicants who are deemed eligible by January 31 can get a combined payment for both January and February, according to Flagg. However, those who are found to be eligible for February but do not receive a combined payment this month will only be able to receive benefits as long as federal funding remains. The USDA has a reserve of roughly $3 billion for the food stamp program.

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