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Families First Will Strengthen States’ Ability to Address Rising Food Needs

March 18, 2020 at 10:15 AM

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act — which the House passed, and the President is expected to sign — will give states broad, temporary flexibility and authority to supplement and modify SNAP (food stamps) and other nutrition programs during the current public health emergency.

If implemented quickly, this new flexibility and authority will play a key temporary role in helping many who experience an economic shock due to the COVID-19 pandemic and may struggle to meet their food needs. State and local agencies that run the nutrition programs are working to understand their communities’ needs and the changes they can make quickly to address them while keeping their workforce safe. The Agriculture Department (USDA), which oversees SNAP and the child nutrition programs, also is working to assess needs and develop specific state options under existing and new flexibilities.

The bill’s most important provisions related to food assistance include:

  • New state authority to provide SNAP benefits to households with children who attend a school that’s closed and who would otherwise receive free or reduced-price meals.
  • Broad new USDA flexibility to approve state plans to (1) provide emergency SNAP benefits to participating SNAP households to address temporary food needs, and (2) adjust their SNAP operations and procedures to help states manage their workload under current conditions.
  • Temporary nationwide suspension of SNAP’s three-month time limit on benefits for adults under age 50 without children in their home.
  • Added flexibility for schools and child care providers that are closed, as well as community-based organizations, to offer meals to children while allowing for social distancing.
  • New flexibility in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) for states to seek waivers of rules that would impede enrolling and serving families remotely while WIC clinics are closed.
  • Funding for additional commodity purchases for emergency food programs and increased funding for the nutrition assistance block grants in Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and Northern Mariana Islands.

SNAP and the child nutrition programs are designed to respond to rising need by expanding as poverty and unemployment rise, making more people eligible for help. In the current emergency, people experiencing food hardship can apply for help, and state and local agencies are adapting their processes to accommodate the need for social distancing for both those seeking help and agency staff administering the programs.

Beyond the pending Families First bill, the current emergency also warrants a further federal funding boost for SNAP. SNAP benefits are among the fastest, most effective forms of economic stimulus because they get money into the economy quickly as SNAP participants use their benefits to buy food at local stores. Given the serious risk of a sharp economic downturn and SNAP’s effectiveness at reaching many low-income households, policymakers are wisely seeking additional, longer-term SNAP-based stimulus, similar to what the 2009 Recovery Act included to help the economy recover from the Great Recession.

Low-income individuals generally spend all of their income meeting daily needs such as shelter, food, and transportation, so every additional SNAP dollar enables a low-income family to spend an additional dollar on food or other items.


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