Lawmakers turn to SNAP benefits and online delivery in next phase of COVID-19 legislation
DANIEL MOORE Post-Gazette Washington Bureau APR 26, 2020
WASHINGTON — As Congress turns to the next round of legislation to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic fallout, the battle over food stamps likely will be the center of a heated debate.
Lawmakers will be debating an expansion of food stamp benefits and a major investment in grocery delivery for food stamp recipients — two provisions that Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and anti-hunger advocacy groups have been pressing to get.
The pandemic has shut down a wide range of businesses, throwing millions of Americans into unemployment and squeezing household food budgets. Groceries for low-income residents can remain out of reach at a time federal health officials recommend households limit trips to the grocery store and have at least two weeks’ worth of food stocked up at all times.
In a recent interview, Mr. Casey said he will call for a 15% increase in maximum allotments in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and a large investment in grocery delivery for food stamp recipients in upcoming legislation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages SNAP, has been running a pilot program to encourage states and grocers to develop online payment platforms that accept the electronic benefits card held by food stamp recipients. But the pilot program, initiated in the 2014 Farm Bill, has been slow to develop.
“We don’t have time for pilot programs or encouraging people to work together,” Mr. Casey said in an interview earlier this month, after the Senate failed to reach a deal on another bill. “We need dollars out the door to pay for a better delivery system.”
“A lot of these communities are relying on volunteers — but what if the volunteers don’t show up?” Mr. Casey said. “We need to pay for these things because it’s an emergency.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, echoed the senator’s thoughts.
“When our most vulnerable citizens are going without while farmers are forced to dump safe and nutritious products because of supply chain disruptions, it is unconscionable to consider that aid and support be withheld from those most in need when USDA has the authority and ability to help both,” Mr. Wolf stated.
On April 17, the USDA announced it will purchase $3 billion worth of meat, dairy and produce from farmers and help distribute it to places of high demand, like food banks and grocery stores.
The USDA also has added more than a dozen states to its SNAP online purchasing pilot program, which launched with New York in April 2019. Pennsylvania officials are still evaluating the program’s costs and technical hurdles, a spokeswoman said.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, in response to the Post-Gazette questions about SNAP, said the department is committed to “expanding new flexibilities and innovative programs to make sure Americans across this country have safe and nutritious food during this national emergency.”
“Enabling people to purchase foods online will go a long way in helping Americans follow CDC social distancing guidelines and help slow the spread of the coronavirus,” Mr. Perdue said. “USDA is mandated with the noble goal of feeding Americans when they need it most, and we are fulfilling that mission with new innovative programs during this national emergency.”
Mr. Casey, and advocacy groups like Just Harvest, have pointed out that the neediest families will see no increases in their SNAP benefits — even after Congress allocated about $15 billion more for food stamps as part of its COVID-19 legislation last month. That extra money went to states to handle the expected increase in applications, not to expand the maximum benefit.
Roughly 720,000 Pennsylvania households already receiving maximum benefits will see no additional dollars, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. The maximum monthly benefit amount is $646 for a four-person household, according to the department, which had sought permission from USDA to issue additional benefits but was denied.
Federal officials “chose to leave out the lowest income families who we already know have no extra money left over to buy food,” said Ann Sanders, a public policy advocate for Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that advocates for food security.
“And we know that they will be the least able to keep their kitchen stocked in case they need to self-quarantine,” Ms. Sanders said.
Debate during expansion
The debate over SNAP benefits and delivery comes after Congress agreed to dramatically expand unemployment insurance, provide paid leave and send $1,200 checks to most Americans.
For those who have lost their jobs, the rise in unemployment insurance — an extra $600 each week on top of regular benefits — can cover grocery bills. The size of the unemployment benefit, which almost derailed Congress’ rescue package, is “mind-boggling,” said Robert Rector, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who has worked on poverty and social welfare issues for decades.
“The safety net has been so dramatically altered in such an unbelievably unprecedented way,” Mr. Rector said. “You certainly shouldn’t be talking and arguing about these things without recognizing that the law you just passed three weeks ago made SNAP irrelevant for virtually every unemployed person.”
SNAP benefits, however, are relevant for the elderly and disabled. Among Pennsylvania SNAP recipients, about 688,000 are people with disabilities and 184,000 elderly. Additionally, many workers are enrolled in SNAP benefits while they continued to work low-wage jobs deemed essential, like those in retail, building security and home health care.
Mr. Doyle wrote on Twitter last week that he would press for an increase in benefits.
“For many Americans, SNAP is their only means to put food on the table during #COVID19,”
Mr. Doyle wrote. “We must provide more food assistance as more families struggle financially and our food banks strain to help.”