The blog of the Urban Institute
March 16, 2020

Feeding the Country during a Pandemic: Seven Ways Forward

March 16, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is disrupting many of the typical ways food assistance is provided to those in need while economic prospects for many Americans are rapidly deteriorating. A top priority for our nation’s emergency response should be figuring out how to feed those who already struggle with food insecurity and those who may be newly in need.

In some cases, experience from the Great Recession and lessons from recent efforts to improve outreach in federal nutrition programs and the food banking system offer ideas for a way forward. In other cases, we face new challenges that require creative thinking and rapid innovation between government, philanthropy, the nonprofit sector, and local communities.

Here are seven strategies that can inform immediate actions on national, state, and local levels.

1. Protect existing SNAP coverage

On March 13, a federal district court judge granted a preliminary injunction suspending implementation of the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’S) implementation of new Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) rules that would tighten states’ ability to request waivers of strict time limits and work requirements for SNAP participants considered able-bodied adults without dependents. The rules were scheduled to go into effect April 1 and by the USDA’s own estimates, would result in the loss of SNAP benefits for almost 700,000 participants because of difficulties consistently complying with the work requirements. This estimate was based on data from before the current declining prospects for work affecting many low-wage workers. The judge cited the coronavirus pandemic as part of the justification for her ruling.

Now states and the USDA will need to act quickly to waive existing work requirements for able-bodied adults, which limit individuals to three months of benefits in a 36-month period if they are unable to consistently work at least 20 hours per week or participate in eligible employment and training programs. The widespread disruption of the economy, as schools close and bars and restaurants are shuttered, means it will be increasingly challenging for workers to get consistent hours or to find new employment.

In addition, monitoring of work documentation, including face-to-face meetings between clients and caseworkers, may put both groups at risk. And caseworkers already stretched thin because of the absence of sick or quarantined colleagues may need to prioritize new applications if the economic repercussions are pronounced.

Implementation of other pending proposed changes to eligibility rules (known as broad-based categorical eligibility) should not proceed, as prior estimates suggest more than three million Americans would lose SNAP benefits under the proposed changes, including nearly 12.0 percent of households with a member older than 60 and 4.5 percent of households with someone who has a disability, two groups among the most at risk of poor outcomes from the coronavirus.

2. Expand SNAP benefits

Look to the lessons of the Great Recession, when the widespread waiver of SNAP work requirements and the temporary boost in monthly SNAP benefits for the typical (median) household of 16 percent had a demonstrated effect on buffering the rising rates of food insecurity.

States may adapt “Disaster SNAP,” typically used during natural disasters, and use other existing flexibility in federal nutrition programs for emergency response, but given the anticipated level of economic disruption, federal legislative action to improve the responsiveness of the regular SNAP program by increasing monthly benefits in the near term is a foundational step toward buffering the millions of low-income families who already need these benefits to put food on the table under ordinary conditions.

Public calls to stock up on food and stay at home should account for the fact that the current maximum SNAP benefit per meal does not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 99 percent of US counties.

3. Maintain grocery and meal provision for seniors

Prioritize strategies to keep a steady flow of support to seniors who receive monthly food boxes through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. In fiscal year 2017, the program, which is administered by states and Native American Tribal Organizations, served about 630,000 seniors in an average month.

The supplemental food packages are typically distributed through food banks and other agencies, which may need to move from operating on-site food pickups to greater use of delivery services in quarantined areas and to accommodate advisories that seniors avoid public gatherings.

Congregate or on-site group meal programs that serve low-income seniors may also need to close, requiring quick action to offer alternatives. The US House of Representatives’ emergency bill, passed March 14, adds $250 million for home-delivered and prepackaged meals to seniors. Local Meals on Wheels programs are gearing up for greater demand but will likely have to forgo the personal contact between clients and volunteers the program is known for to minimize risk to older adults.

4. Maintain meal provision for students when schools close

Get creative in serving elementary and secondary school children who may miss out on free and reduced-price school meals if schools are forced to close or if children need to stay home because of quarantine.

Strategies piloted over the past few years to expand the availability of food during summer break offer ideas, including providing a monthly supplemental benefit via a SNAP or Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) card to help families cover the cost of lost school meals (PDF), using grab-and-go options to avoid the need for children to eat at a congregate site, shipping shelf-stable food directly to families in rural areas, and repurposing school buses to bring food to neighborhoods when students cannot travel to school.

5. Adapt WIC to meet needs of infants and mothers

Suspend in-person appointments for WIC clients, who are required to receive periodic nutrition and health counseling as part of program to provide nutritious foods for pregnant and postpartum women and young children. The USDA can offer greater administrative flexibility to states, which also need to accelerate strategies for digital communication with clients, which may provide an opportunity to give extra emotional support and coaching to young families who suddenly find themselves isolated and unable to turn to family and friends for support. The House emergency bill includes expanded funding for additional WIC caseloads expected from job loss.

6. Expand federal funding and donor support to food banks

Prime the food banking network with resources to meet increased need. The House emergency bill includes $400 million to provide government commodities for distribution through food banks and other service organizations.

The House bill includes funding to support the logistics of quickly acquiring and distributing large quantities of food. Food banks may need to make extensive use of mobile neighborhood distributions and home delivery if regular food pantry sites and free meal programs are closed.

The food banking network may also face a shortage of volunteers. At many food pantries, the primary volunteers are older adults, who are at greater risk of contracting the virus and may need to restrict their interaction with the public.

Corporate and school groups are already canceling volunteer activities at food banks, which may impede food banks’ ability to quickly manage larger inventory. Donors might consider providing funds for additional paid staff if the volunteer base is significantly reduced over a sustained period; such funds might, in turn, be invested in paying community residents experiencing job loss, supporting both needed capacity to distribute food and income replacement among low-income community residents.

7. Communicate clearly

Families advised to self-quarantine need information on how to access federal nutrition assistance programs and how to do so online or by phone; referrals on how to acquire food through charitable food channels, such as mobile distributions or home delivery; and practical advice on meaningful strategies for stretching food resources over an extended period while maximizing health-supporting nutrition.

Human services offices need plans for serving food assistance clients remotely (some states have more online capacity than others). Many communities have hunger hotlines or 211 resource and referral lines that, with additional support, could offer families more support during an outbreak.

Even in the recent improved economy, more than 37 million Americans still struggle to afford an adequate diet. The convergence of ongoing need, disruption of typical assistance, and uncertainty about how many additional households will experience significant economic shocks makes it imperative that a comprehensive and nimble national plan for food security be put in motion immediately.

Bags of food wait to be loaded into vehicles to be delivered to students and families who may need it in the event BPS shuts down classes in the near future on March 11, 2020 in Boston. Entirely volunteer run, the food drive raised over $3,000 to use towards food in just 24 hours. (Photo by Erin Clark for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.