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"Heat and Eat" cuts mean less food assistance for some in Michigan

Liz West

Changes to a federal program often called "Heat and Eat" mean about 150,000 Michigan families will soon see reductions in their monthly food assistance benefits.

The cuts will average about $75 a month per family.

The Heat and Eat program offers higher food assistance benefits for families who live in northern states, where heating bills can be high.

But about 20% of the people enrolled in the program actually don't pay for heat. It's included as part of their rent.

States used to be able to enroll those families for a nominal $1 a year heating payment. But now it will cost states $21 per family.

Added up, that's an extra $8 million cost to Michigan.

Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Human Services, says federal rules also require the money to come from the LIHEAP program – a low income heating assistance program, also paid for with federal funds.

And he says that would leave less money for people with actual home heating bills.

"Is it fair to be using those limited funds to pay to families who don't even have heating expenses when there's families that really need it?" Wheaton asks.

But some states are working around the problem, by replenishing their LIHEAP programs with money from the general budget.

Judy Putnam is with the Michigan League for Public Policy. She says Michigan should do the same.

She says the $8 million cost would bring about $250 million into family food assistance checks. That money is quickly spent at local grocery stores.

"So it helps not only families deal with hunger and improve nutrition, but it helps our economy too," says Putnam.

Cuts to food assistance payments will be phased in over the next five months, starting October 1.

The cuts will affect about 20% of the 740,000 people in Michigan that receive food assistance benefits.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.