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SNAP Designed to Respond Effectively, Quickly to Disaster

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) continues to work with states to rapidly and effectively provide food to those affected by recent hurricanes, it’s worth exploring the three key design features of SNAP (formerly food stamps) that make its effective disaster response possible:

  • Flexibilities to ensure SNAP recipients have timely access to benefits they need. After a disaster, USDA can let states replace previously redeemed benefits so that households can repurchase lost food. The department also can let states issue benefits sooner than they normally would so that SNAP participants don’t have to wait to shop for the groceries they need. Since many in disaster-affected areas don’t have access to electricity or cooking facilities for weeks after a storm, USDA typically lets states allow affected participants to use their benefits to buy hot, ready-to-eat foods (which they generally can’t do with SNAP benefits). USDA can also enable states to grant expedited SNAP benefits when families have relocated there from other states to seek refuge from disaster-affected areas. USDA has activated these flexibilities in the regions hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
  • Provision of temporary benefits to those who have suffered significant loss. Once grocery stores have re-opened after a natural disaster, USDA has authority to let states provide temporary benefits through the Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) program to households that did not qualify for food assistance before the disaster but that were deeply affected and need help getting back on their feet. For example, families whose members lose jobs due to the storm are likely to qualify. Through D-SNAP, states can also grant supplementary benefits to existing SNAP recipients who need extra help after a disaster. USDA may approve D-SNAP in areas that have received a Presidential disaster declaration. Because recipients need access to retailers to redeem D-SNAP benefits, the program often begins issuing assistance several weeks after a disaster. Texas and Florida have begun providing eligible D-SNAP applicants two months of food benefits.
  • Relaxation of requirements to reduce the burden on SNAP staff. A disaster may affect the SNAP offices themselves, forcing workers to face heavy caseloads in suboptimal conditions or even temporary settings. To facilitate timely, efficient service for both newly eligible and existing beneficiaries, USDA may let states temporarily ease federal requirements, including reporting and recertification of current participants. This helps prevent backlogs that would delay access to food during disaster response and recovery.

Those affected by the recent hurricanes will have a hard time rebuilding. In the short term, SNAP is critical in quickly connecting people to benefits so that families don’t go hungry. As in past disasters, USDA’s flexibilities to enable states to mobilize in the affected regions have helped ease a tough situation for thousands.

In our next blog, we discuss the design limitations that prevent the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from responding effectively to disasters like the hurricanes of recent weeks.