Nutrition assistance expands as pandemic impact deepens

The USDA has issued waivers to 43 states that make it easier for schools to provide food to low-income children who lost access to free or reduced-price meals due to coronarvirus closures, said a spokesman on Wednesday. An anti-hunger group called for more flexible treatment and speedy handling of the burgeoning number of applications for food stamps.

“We know it’s a very large demand they are going to be facing,” said Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). As an example, she said SNAP applications in Los Angeles last month were twice the volume of March 2019.

The $2 trillion coronavirus relief package enacted last week allocated $15.5 billion for SNAP, mostly to pay for higher enrollment, $8.8 billion for child nutrition programs headlined by school lunch, and $450 million to buy and donate food to food banks. A week before that, the $100 billion “families first” bill suspended SNAP work requirements and allowed states to increase benefits to the maximum allowed by law.

As of midday on Wednesday, 43 states had received waivers from “area eligibility” rules that usually govern food programs during the summer, said the USDA. Ordinarily, schools or community sponsors can provide food free of charge to all children in areas where at least 50 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Elsewhere, they have to identify each child who qualifies for assistance. The waivers make it easier to distribute food. “This is the No. 1 request we are hearing from schools and community-based organizations,” said a coalition of school, public health, religious, and child welfare groups last week.

During the school year, an average of 22 million children a day eat school lunch for free or at a reduced price. There are nearly 100,000 public schools in the nation. A School Nutrition Association survey, conducted as stay-at-home orders spread, found that many school districts planned to provide emergency meals or food assistance, most commonly grab-and-go meals, while classes were suspended. But school food operators said they were worried about regulatory barriers and financial losses. Cafeterias depend on sales and federal reimbursement of meals served.

Some 28 states have temporarily boosted SNAP benefits, as allowed by the “families first” act, according to a tally by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The USDA limited the increases to two months, March and April, said the think tank. SNAP benefits are calculated under a formula that takes into account a household’s income, so 60 percent of households receive less than the maximum.

“The vast majority of states have taken steps to ease SNAP administration and maintain participation,” said the CBPP. Most often, states are allowing participants more time to submit documents or conducting interviews by telephone rather than in person.

“Many states are already reporting significant increases, and given the massive spike in claims for unemployment insurance and the likelihood of a sharp economic downturn, states will likely see large SNAP application increases for months to come,” said the think tank in a report.

During a teleconference, FRAC officials said the area-eligibility waivers open the door to providing more food for low-income children through more distribution sites. “We think in every state, we should be opening sites up,” said Crystal FitzSimons, FRAC’s school food expert.

A separate option for states is the so-called Pandemic EBT, to deliver benefits to families whose school-age children have lost access to free or reduced-price meals due to school closures. FRAC estimated the P-EBT would average $125 per child, per month.

The anti-hunger group said it would press for further expansion of public nutrition programs if Congress drafts another coronavirus relief bill. Its goals are a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits, raising the minimum benefit to $30 a month, and barring the USDA from implementing three regulations that would narrow food stamp eligibility and end benefits for nearly 4 million people.

At latest count, SNAP enrollment was 37.2 million people. The record is 47.6 million in fiscal 2013, with a cost of $80 billion.