It’s Time for the Pandemic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Back in October 2009, when fears about the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic were at a crisis point in the U.S., Congress passed emergency legislation to boost the reach of the safety net. The law authorized federal food aid benefits to replace free or reduced-price school lunches for eligible children whose schools were closed for more than five consecutive days.

More than 700 schools closed across the U.S. during the course of that crisis, affecting nearly 370,000 students. Then as now, free or reduced-price school meals were a crucial source of food for children in low-income homes. By shifting the delivery of this aid from schools to food stamps through the Pandemic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or P-SNAP, lawmakers tried to avert a knock-on hunger crisis spurred by the disaster response.

In the end, P-SNAP benefits were never used. School closures were brief, not all the schools that closed relied heavily on food stamps, and few districts were aware of P-SNAP’s existence. Now that the nation is facing a much more severe pandemic, however, P-SNAP’s big moment may be at hand. After U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue called on Congress to reboot P-SNAP as part of the government’s unfolding response to the coronavirus crisis, the House passed a bill on Saturday that would do exactly that.

But some, including Republicans in the Senate, say the bill doesn’t go far enough. Helping kids get the food that they rely on schools to provide is just one of the fixes that the federal government needs to implement in order to stave off hunger as jobs evaporate, experts say. In the past, the government has taken action to furnish even more food aid in response to economic and public-health disasters. The coronavirus crisis is staggering the nation with both at once.

For weeks, people who use the federal government’s regular Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have been worrying about how the pandemic will affect their access to groceries. Unlike those American households making huge supermarket hauls in order to hunker down for the duration, families who receive monthly financial infusions from SNAP can only buy so much food at a time. Stocking up isn’t really an option, even as state and local authorities urge residents to do just that.

“I think, how?” says Angela Caldwell, a resident of Apache, Oklahoma. She receives SNAP aid for her family of four, which is currently five, since her oldest daughter recently moved back in. “If the funds aren’t made available for you [to last] for two or three months, then how are we supposed to do that?”

Even under the best of circumstances, SNAP benefits fail to cover the price of meals in 99 percent of U.S. counties. Feeding her three teenagers is hard enough already, Caldwell says, on the $645 she receives each month in food aid. Her options otherwise are limited: There are food pantries, plus a take-what-you-need drop-off outside the local flower shop. She says there’s no way for her to stock up for an extended hibernation.

Plus, there are existing hurdles to receiving charity. In Lawton, Oklahoma, Katlynn Carlisle and her extended family rely on food aid through a single SNAP account. She says that some community food pantries require people to show identification and a current utility bill in order to get help, but none of the family members in her house is on the utility bill; they pay the landlord. That’s just one example of the administrative burden that makes it harder for her family members to get food.

“We’re just stressing on stocking up on food. That’s our biggest problem right now,” says Carlisle, who at 21 isn’t old enough to apply for SNAP aid on her own. Because of the way the benefits are calculated — by income, family size, and work hours — her household of extended family members receives about $300 per month. “We’re talking about getting some Lysol to disinfect everything and keep everyone inside, but it’s stressful when you’re only getting $300 a month, for a family of eight people.”

Coronavirus is heightening many of these longstanding vulnerabilities. Formal and informal safety nets alike are under incredible strain now, and to make sure families don’t go without food, lawmakers need to address both the supply and distribution of aid, says Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. Food banks are already seeing a dip in resources and volunteers. Many of the people who staff food pantries are retirees who are especially vulnerable to Covid-19 infections. “You don’t want them on the front lines,” Waxman says.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which the House passed on Saturday and the Senate is currently debating, boosts food aid in several ways. The bill expands support for pregnant women and postpartum mothers under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children, known as WIC. The bill also activates the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) to bolster resources at food banks. And it authorizes the USDA to approve P-SNAP or Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) plans set by the states.

Yet the response has to go further, according to Kathy Fisher, policy director at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. She lists SNAP as the nation’s first defense against hunger, with food banks and charity plugging holes or serving the need for families whose benefits run short. Coronavirus both hampers the ability of local food banks to do this necessary work and greatly expands the number of people who may soon need it. “There’s a whole secondary layer of responders and no one know who will be able to do that stuff and who’s not,” Fisher says.

The nation’s food banking network is innovative and familiar with dealing with crises, according to Waxman. The Feeding America network can reach every county in the nation with food and other necessities in a crisis. After the devastating hurricanes of Harvey, Maria, and Irma in 2017, for example, Feeding America backstopped 30 affected food banks to deliver some 100 million pounds of food, water, and emergency supplies. Typically, though, the crisis is a natural disaster that hits a limited area. In those situations, other non-affected food banks, faith groups, and nonprofits can step up to fill the need.

There are other things the government can and should try in order to bolster the safety net now. Anything to cut administrative burden — especially work requirements — is a must, Waxman says. As with library access increasingly restricted across the country, whatever the government can do to make information and services available by phone is important, she adds.

Another immediate option to boost the reach of food aid would be to authorize online purchases via SNAP nationwide. Alabama, Iowa, New York, Oregon and Washington have an ongoing pilot program that allows SNAP benefit users to spend their food stamps online from a limited number of grocers (Amazon, Walmart, ShopRite, and Wright’s Markets). This would be a big shift for SNAP: Not all states even allow participants to apply for benefits online. Given the disparities in access to the internet, such a program alone wouldn’t support every household in a food desert — but it’s a fix that could expand options for many.

“Other than the Great Recession, we haven’t been tested with an across-the-board quick need,” Waxman says. “We certainly saw strategies during the Great Recession that were helpful. We just need to activate them very quickly. I hope we don’t get bogged down in ideological debates.”

To that end, the federal government would need to adjust its eligibility criteria to make sure that low-income families don’t suffer. Only last week, the USDA was still pushing forward a rule that would restrict the ability of states to provide waivers for work requirements under SNAP. The rule, which the USDA itself estimated would force some 700,000 people off benefits, was blocked on Friday by a federal judge, who deemed it “arbitrary and capricious.”

“Especially now, as a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP is essential,” wrote D.C. District Court Judge Beryl Howell.

Those work requirements still stand, however, and while states can continue to ask for waivers for these requirements, not all states currently do. In states that don’t get on board with waivers, workers put out of work by the coronavirus pandemic will have a hard time showing enough hours to meet the threshold. Having so many inscrutable local standards for eligibility is a hurdle to food aid. Right now it’s an open question whether a no-strings-attached check from the Treasury, like the $1,000 suggested by Utah Senator Mitt Romney, will count as income against SNAP aid.

“Food security should be at the top of every [coronavirus] briefing,” Waxman says. “If you put some of these things in place nationwide, like the increase in benefits, then you’re dealing with a uniform set of messages, and you don’t have to figure it out based on where you live.”

There’s a great deal that the government can do now in order to make it easier for households to apply for, receive and use federal food benefits. Advocates have been calling for some of these reforms for years. Now there’s a very urgent need to make them happen sooner rather than later.

“It’s low-income people who have the least margin for error,” Fisher says. “If they have to run to the corner store for food, that’s twice as expensive. There’s not a lot of wiggle room when you’re on a limited budget.”

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