By Sean Walsh
The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting shuttering of the economy has caused more than 22 million workers across the country to seek unemployment benefits.
That loss of income forced many Americans to question how they will put food on the table for their families. Many have turned to our nation's largest federal food aid program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), for help.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), nearly 38 million Americans participated in SNAP in 2019, receiving an average monthly benefit of approximately $1.40 per person per meal.
Nearly half of all SNAP participants are children: 79.5% of SNAP households include a child, an elderly person, or a person with disabilities, and 84.7% of all SNAP benefits go to such households according to the Food Research and Action Center.
The coronavirus-induced spike in SNAP applications paired with public health guidance calling for social distancing and self-quarantine have posed challenges for states, the federal government and those in need of food assistance.
How will medically at-risk SNAP participants purchase food when they can only redeem benefits at brick and mortar stores? How will seniors or those with disabilities access nutritious food while removed from traditional supports such as congregate community meals? How do SNAP participants limit travel when many live in neighborhoods without access to a nearby grocery store?
Federal options allow states to take the steps necessary to address food needs. In the recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), Congress provided additional funding for SNAP and temporarily removed some existing program requirements; the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has provided some administrative flexibilities; and there are existing SNAP state options like online grocery ordering and the restaurant meals program.
Options available to states to make SNAP more responsive to the challenges COVID-19 presents:
Online Purchasing: Using SNAP benefits to purchase groceries online began in New York in April 2019 as a pilot program, followed by Washington in January 2020. In March 2020, Alabama, Iowa and Oregon became operational and the program expanded to Nebraska in April 2020. A rapid increase in demand for online shopping options due to the coronavirus led the USDA to quickly approve several states to join the program—Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas and West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Online purchases using SNAP benefits can be made at Amazon and Walmart in all participating states. In some states, regional grocery chains are also approved. SNAP benefits can only be used for food and cannot pay for delivery or service fees imposed by retailers.
Restaurant Meals Program: Only Arizona and 11 counties in California operate a restaurant meals program option. Rhode Island and Florida are operating pilot projects at a limited number of restaurants and Illinois is working with the USDA to implement the program.
Typically, SNAP benefits cannot be used to purchase prepared foods. The restaurant meals program allows the elderly, people with disabilities, and homeless individuals to purchase prepared meals at pre-approved retailers. This program can provide those without access to food storage or kitchen facilities, or those who cannot safely prepare meals at home, the ability to purchase ready-to-eat foods. During the coronavirus pandemic, this option can assist populations that have been cut off from typical meal options like congregate meal sites for seniors or soup kitchens for the homeless due to social distancing restrictions.
Emergency Allotments: The FFRCA allows states to apply to temporarily issue supplemental SNAP benefits for SNAP households. States can choose to temporarily raise benefit levels to the maximum monthly allotment for family size regardless of income. If a household is already at the maximum allotment for their family size they cannot receive any supplemental benefits. SNAP participants must still meet SNAP federally mandated income limits to qualify for the program. SNAP benefits are paid for by the federal government. All states as well as Guam, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands have been approved by the USDA to participate.
Pandemic EBT: The FFCRA authorized the USDA to allow states to provide income-eligible families with Electronic Benefit Transfer cards with the value of the daily reimbursement rate of free school breakfast and lunch. All students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals qualify for the program regardless of whether their family meets the income restrictions for SNAP. This program offers a way for states to ensure the most vulnerable students receive meals regardless of the patchwork of important meal distribution programs local school districts are operating. Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have been approved to operate the program.
Program Requirement Waivers: The USDA has approved several waivers aimed mostly at reducing person-to-person contact and alleviating administrative strain magnified during the coronavirus pandemic. These waivers include: adjusting SNAP interview requirements, suspending federally mandated work requirements, extending quality control deadlines, and providing states with the flexibility to extend participant re-enrolment deadlines.
Sean Walsh is the Emerson Fellow in NCSL's Immigrant Policy Project/Hunger Partnership.