The federal government shutdown from 22 December 2018 to 25 January 2019 created an unprecedented disruption in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. We conducted a cross-sectional qualitative study to begin to capture how the disruption affected food security and wellbeing among a small sample of California SNAP participants. We collected data from 26 low-income adults in four focus groups in four diverse California counties. We found that participants routinely struggle to secure an adequate and healthy diet in the context of high costs of living, the shutdown and benefit disruption added to participants' stress and uncertainty and exacerbated food insecurity, and it diminished some participants' faith in government. Participants reported that, while having additional benefits in January felt like a relief from typical end-of-month deprivation, the subsequent extended gap between benefit distributions and a lack of clarity about future benefits caused cascading effects as participants later had to divert money from other expenses to buy food and faced added uncertainty about future economic stability. Additionally, the shutdown highlighted challenges related to the availability, timing, and tone of communications between participants and SNAP agencies. Participants recommended that SNAP adjust benefit and eligibility levels to better address costs of living, improve customer service, and avoid future disruptions.
Keywords: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; federal government shutdown; food insecurity; nutrition; qualitative research; safety net.