WASHINGTON - David Gardner is a poor man in a high-cost city.
Unemployed since 2015, the 34-year-old Washington D.C. resident struggles to get by on a $405 monthly Social Security disability payment and SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program often called food stamps.
Trying to protect people like Gardner from being punished by the 35-day partial government shutdown that ended last week, officials at the Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP, decided in early January to provide the February food benefit sooner than usual.
"We want to assure states, and SNAP recipients, that the benefits for February will be provided," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said on Jan. 8. "Our motto here at USDA has been to 'Do Right and Feed Everyone.' With this solution, we've got the 'Feed Everyone' part handled. And I believe that the plan we've constructed takes care of the 'Do Right' part as well."
That attempt to "do right," however, potentially has an unfortunate consequence - a gap in food assistance for people like Gardner.
Working with state governments, USDA did get February's benefits to recipients early, about two weeks early in Gardner's case.
The not-so-good side is he and others now have a longer-than-usual wait before they can get their March allotments. They won't lose any benefits, but the gap between the February and March distribution could leave millions scrambling.
"About 15 million households, which include about 30 million people, could experience a gap between monthly SNAP payments of more than 40 days. More than 4 million low-income households, including 8 million people, could experience a gap of more than 50 days," says a new report by Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
About 90 percent of recipients face a gap of more than 40 days, according to the Center's analysis, though it says a "SNAP law requires that 'no household experience an interval between issuances of more than 40 days.'"
"The much-longer-than-usual gap between benefit receipt for February and March will cause some households whose budgets already are extremely tight to face heightened difficulties affording food as they await their March benefits," Rosenbaum said. "In turn, this will place additional strain on the emergency food network and other community resources, which already are stretched."
Heightened difficulties? Listen to Gardner.
"I'm out of food right now," he said. "My food stamps are gone for February. . . . I actually am living off of Oodles of Noodles."
He used the last of his February benefit on Wednesday to buy 30 packs of Oodles of Noodles: "I got to eat at least one time a day."
Gardner also frequents food banks. They and other food assistance charities regularly have high demand at the end of each month because SNAP benefits aren't enough to cover a month's worth of food.
The same day the Center published its report, the department's Food and Nutrition Service urged recipients to "Carefully budget your SNAP benefits to extend through February."
But that's difficult to do even under regular circumstances.
"It's well documented that SNAP benefits normally run out for most households before the end of the month," Rosenbaum wrote. "Within a week of receiving SNAP, households redeem over half of their SNAP allotments. By the end of the second week, SNAP households have redeemed over three-quarters of their benefits, and by the end of the third week they have redeemed 90 percent."
"SNAP benefits are not intended to cover the entire month for most households," Rosenbaum added, and they don't. The average per-person monthly SNAP benefit in 2018 for the more than 40,300 SNAP recipients, according to Agriculture Department data, was $125.25. That's less than $4.50 a day.
SNAP's monthly benefits are "never enough to feed one person let alone a family," said Kierstin Quinsland, housing director at Miriam's Kitchen, an organization that serves the homeless and the hungry in the District. "That's why food pantry lines are longer at the end of the month, because people's stamps have run out. . . . We definitely get more requests for food support toward the end of the month."
That's an ongoing problem. For the current difficulties, "USDA is reviewing this issue and expects to provide guidance to SNAP State agencies in the near future," Mike Illenberg, a USDA spokesman, said by email. "The Administration continues to work to ensure that low-income Americans have access to the nutrition they need, even while full-year appropriations is pending in Congress."
Gardner expects the coming weeks to be hungry ones. He applied for additional Social Security benefits, he said, "so maybe I'll go get me a couple of more packs noodles."
This article was written by Joe Davidson, a reporter for The Washington Post.