The Central Pantry on the north side of Columbia looks like a small grocery store. Ten aisles full of non-perishable food cut diagonally across the middle of the room. Crates of avocados, tomatoes and other fresh produce line one wall.
Jamie Sloan walks a cart full of groceries through the aisles to the checkout counter where she’s asked if she receives food stamps.
“Not anymore,” she says.
Sloan is one of around 26,000 Missourians who stopped qualifying for food stamps April 1.
Federal law says any adult without a child to support and no physical or mental disability that prevents them from working can only receive food stamps for three months out of every three years if they’re working fewer than 20 hours a week.
However, during the recession and the sluggish recovery that followed, high unemployment allowed many states—including Missouri—to qualify for temporary waivers from that three month limit.
As more people have gone back to work this year, 19 states—again, including Missouri—no longer meet the requirements for that waiver, leaving people like Sloan without access to food stamps.
“Honestly, I thought I was gonna die,” Sloan says of when she found out she had lost her food stamps. “I cried. I just fell on the floor and started bawling.”
Sloan says she used to only go to the food pantry maybe once or twice a year, usually just for some bread, but without food stamps, she says, it’s become a lifeline.
In the weeks since Sloan and others stopped receiving food stamps, the Central Pantry has seen an increase in people taking advantage of its services. So has its supplier, the Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri.
“We’re very confident we can meet the need,” says Bobbie Kincaid, the Food Bank’s associate director. “We’re bursting at the seams, and we have been blessed with an abundant amount of food.“
However, some people don’t think the need should be so great.
Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says even though Missouri doesn’t qualify for the waiver as a state, parts of Missouri still could. According to federal guidelines, unemployment in around 50 counties is still high enough to continue receiving waivers. Bolen thinks that would be a good thing.
“Some parts of the state are doing better than others,” Bolen says. “It's those others those places that are still struggling that waiving the time limit can be very helpful.”
But a Missouri bill passed last year prevents the state from applying for any waivers, even for those regions that could still qualify, a move Bolen described as “worrisome.”
Missouri State Sen. David Sater, who sponsored the bill, sees it differently. He says he wanted to ensure the waiver would expire this year to incentivize people to get back to work.
“People are healthier when they work, their well-being is better,” Sater says. “That's our objective is for people to be self sufficient and not be on the government payroll.”
“There are jobs out there,” Sater adds, citing the “now hiring” signs he sees on his three and a half-hour commute from Cassville to Jefferson City.
For Jamie Sloan, however, finding work has been tough, even in Columbia, where unemployment is less than 4 percent. And she worries about the decisions she’ll have to make if her situation stays the same.
“Do I let my electricity stay on or do I shut it off because I have nothing to eat? It's a real big choice,” Sloan says.