How SNAP Needs to Change During the Pandemic
Even if Friday’s Heroes Act were passed, we’d still see a hunger spike. Here’s why.
When Grisel Cardona, a single mother with three young children, tested positive for Covid-19, she feared for more than her life. She feared she would not be able to feed her children.
Cardona, who lives in the Bronx, was forced to leave her job to take care of her children, two of whom are autistic, and receives money for food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Since the start of the pandemic, she has been going to schools for grab-and-go meals and stopping at free, city-provided pantry boxes, but then she became too sick to leave the house.
“I didn’t feel well enough to go out and I didn’t want to go out and get people sick,” she said. “But being a single mom of three, what choice did I have?”
Covid-19 has hit low-income families like Cardona’s the hardest, and hunger has surged during the pandemic. A poll released by Hunger Free America found that among adults, 24 percent skipped meals or cut portions because they lacked enough money for food. That’s about two and a half times the adult hunger rate of 2018.
To compound the problem, food banks and food rescue organizations are shutting down because of staffing issues. In the Bronx, where Cardona lives, 18 out of 49 City Harvest programs have closed since the start of the pandemic, according to Jerome Nathaniel, associate director at City Harvest.
Food banks and food rescue organizations are shutting down because of staffing issues. In the Bronx, where Cardona lives, 18 out of 49 City Harvest programs have closed since the start of the pandemic.
“City Harvest usually delivers food we rescue to more than 400 food pantries and soup kitchens across the city, but over 80 of them have been forced to shut either as a precautionary measure to protect their staff or due to insufficient staffing, as many programs are led by elderly people who are afraid of becoming infected and many lack the resources to adjust their operations in accordance with recommendations from the CDC,” he said.
The connection between hunger and malnutrition and disease makes rising food insecurity even more troubling. “There is so much evidence that people who are malnourished have lower-functioning immune systems and are more likely to contract and pass on this disease,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America.
Against this backdrop of dire need— with aerial photos of snaking lines of cars across parking lots waiting for food — Democrats in the House passed the Heroes Act on Friday, a sweeping piece of legislation that throws a life preserver to help address the rise in hunger in America. Republicans are unlikely to pass it in the Senate, and President Donald Trump has threatened a veto. But without the Heroes Act and other federal responses, the country is failing to shore up an already frayed safety net.
There have been several provisions in the most recent relief bills to address food insecurity and expand SNAP since the start of the pandemic.
Stitching together a threadbare safety net
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020, passed in March, allows states to apply for Pandemic EBT (P-EBT)— essentially money to cover meals children would have received free or at a reduced price under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act if schools were open. The program is available to families regardless of immigration status, and in any state where a school is closed for at least five consecutive days due to a public health emergency such as COVID-19.
At press time, 24 states had been approved to provide families of public school children with P-EBT. In New York City, for example, where there is universal free school lunch, every family with children in public school is eligible for $5.70 per day, per child, for the 72 days of school closures this year. No applications are needed; the money is simply added to the EBT cards of existing SNAP families or mailed on a temporary EBT card to new families.
Maximum SNAP benefits are not enough
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, along with provisions of the CARES Act, allows states to provide emergency supplemental SNAP benefits — which means every family already receiving SNAP will now receive the maximum monthly benefit amount.
Admittedly, this provision is a fast way to get additional resources for food into the hands of many SNAP recipients, but it leaves out those who already receive the maximum SNAP monthly benefit — and that’s a significant portion of SNAP recipients. In 2018, 37 percent received the maximum.
“Nearly 40 percent of families on SNAP will not see an increase in monthly payments because they are already receiving that maximum benefit,” said Julia McCarthy, Food Ed Hub director for the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy.
The Heroes Act authorizes a 15 percent boost to SNAP, increasing the average SNAP benefit by just 20 cents per meal, from the current level of $1.34 to $1.54 per meal. It also increases the minimum monthly SNAP benefit from the current level of $16 to $30.
Mayor Proposes to Slash Budget for Breakfast in the NY Classroom
Anti-hunger advocates are not pleased
It’s worth noting that these are not princely sums; Americans who took the “Food Stamp Challenge” a few years ago could not make it work. “I gave myself $29.19 for the month. It turned out to be one of the most physically and mentally grueling weeks of my life,” Kathleen Elkins wrote for Business Insider.
The Heroes Act would delay Trump administration rules that strip nearly 700,000 from receiving SNAP benefits; the administration is now in the process of appealing a court ruling that blocked its proposed stricter work requirements for food stamps that were to take effect in April.
Currently, SNAP recipients are prohibited from buying hot food: the Heroes Act would temporarily allow people to buy hot foods with SNAP at retail outlets that already accept it. It would not cover restaurant take-out meals.
The Heroes Act also incorporates the FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries Act (aka the Feed Act), a bill initiated by Chef Jose Andres. Modeled on Andres’ World Central Kitchen model, this bill fully funds restaurants and small farmers to prepare and provide food for the neediest and most vulnerable.
“As millions of restaurants and their employees struggle to get by, the Feed Act will give states more flexibility to provide meals for vulnerable populations while supporting local businesses at the same time,” said Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts and one of the bill’s sponsors.
College students are especially vulnerable
The number of food-insecure college students has surged in recent years. A 2019 survey from Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that 45 percent of student respondents from over 100 institutions said they had been food insecure in the past 30 days.
Yet, college students who are food insecure are required to work 20 hours a week in order to qualify for SNAP. With all college students at home, and a spike in unemployment making finding work a challenge, Democrats have proposed the End Pandemic Hunger for College Students Act of 2020, which would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to issue waivers to states wishing to eliminate the 20-hour work requirement.
Here’s How Universities Are Dealing with Student Hunger on Campus
Food insecurity among college students is on the rise
“Food insecurity was already a problem on college campuses across the country before the pandemic, and we need to get students help before it turns into a full-blown crisis,” Representative Marcia Fudge, Democrat of Ohio and the chairwoman of the House Agriculture subcommittee on nutrition, said in a statement.
So far, the government has turned away several state requests to waive that requirement, and the bill’s language was not included in the Heroes Act, leaving vulnerable college students without SNAP or a stimulus check.
SNAP recipients should be allowed to shop for groceries online
Online grocery shopping is a sensible and safe option in a time of social distancing, but it’s not an option for folks like Grisel Cardona, or the hundreds of thousands of other low-income families on SNAP, many of whom are black and brown families with pre-existing conditions.
Only 15 states allow SNAP recipients to shop online through a pilot program set up through the USDA with Walmart, Shoprite, and Amazon. And even in states where SNAP can be used at those three retailers, it is not accepted online at local groceries, CSAs, or at restaurants offering takeout.
Hope comes from the SNAP Online Purchasing Flexibility Act, a new bill from Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, which would allow SNAP recipients to purchase groceries online in all 50 states so they can minimize their possible exposure to coronavirus in public.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, also joined a bipartisan group of senators in calling on the USDA to ensure SNAP participants can receive home food delivery and curbside pickup during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Gillibrand expressed concern that SNAP recipients — especially seniors and immunocompromised individuals, those with disabilities, and families who lack reliable transportation — are often unable to practice social distancing guidelines and follow stay-at-home orders because they must travel to grocery stores to use SNAP benefits.
“This puts some of the most at-risk individuals at a disadvantage just because they rely on SNAP benefits to access the food they need,” Gillibrand said. So far, the USDA has not moved on this request.
Delivery fees and minimums should be waived
Advocates and Democrats are pushing for the associated delivery fees and minimums to be waived because their cost makes online grocery shopping prohibitive. “I wanted to order food online,” Cardona said. “I have COVID; I don’t want to go out and infect anyone else. But the delivery fees are too high. I don’t have that kind of extra money.”
Gillibrand wrote a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, joining her Senate colleagues to urge those companies to remove extra delivery fees for SNAP recipients. At press time, the companies have not yet waived these fees.
For Cardona, who is starting to finally feel better, food insecurity weighs on her. “Thank god I am able to function now, but it’s just so upsetting that people are taking advantage of families who depend on SNAP,” she said.
“It makes no sense. I wish this virus had never happened. I feel like I am in a nightmare.”