With executive orders, Biden gives anti-hunger advocates a big slice of what they wanted

Amid the flurry of executive orders that marked his first 48 hours in office, President Joe Biden announced on Friday that he will ask the USDA to expand two critical food-assistance programs, as hunger continues to plague millions during the pandemic. The orders will raise SNAP benefits and increase funds awarded through the Pandemic-EBT program, which transfers the dollar amount of school lunches onto debit cards to compensate for meals kids miss while schools are closed. The early moves confirm expectations that the new administration will be serious about tackling food insecurity, through both general financial assistance and targeted food aid.

Anti-hunger advocates were vocal about the need to increase SNAP, also known as food stamps, well before the pandemic. But since March they’ve argued that boosting assistance is a necessity, as hunger rose to record levels. Although previous coronavirus relief measures allowed SNAP users to get maximum benefits, they did not increase assistance for households already at the benefits ceiling—40 percent of all recipients. Biden’s executive order authorizes states to expand emergency allotments for those in-need families, providing additional  coverage to 12 million Americans who were otherwise excluded from emergency relief.

Critically, the executive order also changes the way the USDA calculates SNAP benefits, shifting away from the “Thrifty Food Plan.” Experts call that system outdated, arguing that it does not reflect true cost of living and, accordingly, has kept assistance artificially low.

“Providing resources to purchase food—through SNAP and Pandemic EBT—are the most effective approaches for reducing child food insecurity in the U.S.,” Lauren Bauer, a fellow at the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, said in a statement. “Moving forward, it will be critical for the Biden Administration to work closely with states to approve plans and implement these changes for the benefits enhancements to have their intended effect.”

After four years of leadership that regularly sought to undermine access to benefits—often leading to last-minute program extensions that undermined benefits distribution—Biden’s early action indicates a strong change in tone.

“I believe that in this administration we will see program extensions that are longer, and that are addressed before the 11th hour,” said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of No Kid Hungry. That stems from the Trump administration’s “concern about what they called ‘program integrity’” — essentially that families would have access to benefits for too long, or might receive benefits they don’t need. “As we look at December job numbers and how many millions of families are still impacted by this crisis,” Davis said, “I don’t think too long or too much is something we’ll have to worry about.”