While the world and our country grapple with the tremendous challenge the COVID-19 virus has placed upon our economy and way of life, the food safety net is responding exactly as it was designed to respond to a crisis of this scale. The ways in which safety net programs are responding to increased need for nutritional assistance echo what advocates have been saying for years: Programs like SNAP, WIC, and Free and Reduced Price School Meals should be made more accessible by reducing barriers to enrollment and increasing benefits to truly meet the need and improve health.
Food insecurity — defined as the inability to afford healthy food for all family members — affected 37 million U.S. households even before the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. But the inability to access enough food is on the rise as unemployment has surged into double-digits, and many workers are furloughed without pay. The most recent data from Northwestern University shows that food insecurity in California has risen 2.4 times the pre-pandemic levels. According to data from Feeding America, California’s food banks are experiencing a 73% increase in demand. California Department of Social Services data shows similarly shocking trends – for five consecutive weeks in March and April, weekly applications for SNAP were twice as high as in February. And according to the California Association of Food Banks, “in particular, COVID-19 has widened the racial disparities of hunger and poverty, as communities of color experience the health and economic impacts of the pandemic on a far deeper scale. Nationally, among those with children, 24% of households with a white respondent were food insecure during April or May, compared to 41% of households with a Black respondent, and 36% of those with a Hispanic respondent.”
The response to this increased need has been robust in California, but there is still opportunity to do more. To meet the increased demand for CalFresh (SNAP) county agencies have been approved to implement strategies that speed up and simplify the application process. In some cases the eligibility interview can be waived, and burdensome reporting requirements to maintain benefits were suspended. The CalFresh Emergency Allotment increased benefits to the maximum allowable for the household size. For example, a single person who customarily receives $16/month received the maximum allotment of $194/month for the months of March through June. Children who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals at school were eligible for Pandemic EBT or P-EBT benefits. P-EBT benefits have helped families in California buy food when schools were closed because of the coronavirus emergency. Families have gotten up to $365 per eligible child on their P-EBT card to use on food and groceries. The Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program was offered state waivers to remove the need for recipients to visit the WIC office in order to receive their benefits, and the program has made purchasing food easier.
These changes are reducing the burden on food banks, increasing access to nutritious foods, and helping the economy. Northwestern University reports that “fully 8.6% of Californians – nearly one in 10 – report relying on food banks. That’s 3.5 million Californians.” P-EBT benefit distribution began in mid-May. So far $585,667,814 in food was purchased using P-EBT through June 15th (approximately $1.15 billion has been made available). That is money being spent directly at local grocery stores and farmers’ markets. In pre-COVID-19 times the California Association of Food Banks amplified this data:• 1 in 20 bags of food assistance comes from a food charity; the rest comes from federal programs.• Every billion in SNAP benefits generates as many as 14,000 jobs in states like California with heavy food and farming industries, including nearly 3,000 agricultural jobs.• Annually, SNAP drives $7.5 billion in economic activity across California, especially in rural areas supporting farmers to have markets for their products, and small retailers to have customers.• Because Californians on SNAP buy their food locally, SNAP benefits circulate in the economy with a 1.7 multiplier effect—according to Moody’s– one of the most effective economic stimulus programs across the federal government. In other words, every $5 in SNAP benefits generates $9 in economic activity.
While these temporary changes to increase access are in response to the pandemic, these results echo what advocates have been working to implement permanently. Burdensome application and reporting requirements have been identified as key reasons potentially eligible households decline to participate in CalFresh. The state enrolled just 72% of eligible residents in CalFresh in 2016, the fifth lowest rate in the nation, leaving behind about $1.8 billion in federal funding earmarked for food insecurity. But 72% is a vast improvement from the state’s 2012 participation rate of 55%. In that timeframe critical changes were implemented. The removal of the finger-imaging requirement, the move to enable telephone interviews, reduced reporting intervals, removal of the lifetime ban for certain felons to receive CalFresh, and the removal of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Cash-Out policy are changes that ushered in higher participation.
Despite all the data on how SNAP helps to lift families out of poverty and improve health and performance at work and at school, we are still fighting to protect and improve federal nutrition programs. The Great Recession demonstrated SNAP’s ability to expand as needed when the program saw a peak of 52 million participants in 2011, and then contracted down to 45 million in 2017, as expected as the economy marginally improved.The fight to maintain important safety next programs that help eliminate hunger in our country continues amid the COVID pandemic and accompanying economic crisis. The recent threats to the SNAP program highlight just how important it is that we keep fighting and advocating for programs that help relieve hunger. American families are facing unprecedented levels of unemployment and uncertainty of childcare options amid a massive health crisis. We need support for our human right to access food.