Before the pandemic, 1 in 7 Kentuckians and 1 in 5 Kentucky kids experienced food insecurity. Yet despite deep hardship caused by COVID, relief provided by the safety net kept food insecurity from worsening significantly in 2020. And while the state is recovering from the pandemic, many families are still facing hardship. As pandemic-era programs expire, the legislature must ensure Kentucky has a strong safety net that can help families put food on the table during hard times. With the historic state revenue surplus and significant federal recovery funds coming through the second tranche of State Fiscal Recovery Fund monies (SFRF) as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the General Assembly has important opportunities to reduce hunger in the commonwealth. Here’s how we can invest those resources in healthy families and communities this session.
Tap federal relief funds to feed more families
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is Kentucky’s primary anti-hunger tool. During the pandemic, federally-funded Emergency Allotment benefits have provided every SNAP household with the maximum amount of benefits for their household size since April 2020. Currently, Emergency Allotments make up 42% of all SNAP benefits in Kentucky — about $52 million federal dollars that go to an estimated over 520,000 Kentuckians and 4,500 local food retailers and stimulate local economies. However, Emergency Allotment benefits are dependent on the state and federal public health emergency declaration (PHE) related to COVID-19. As a first measure to fight hunger, the General Assembly should extend the state PHE so that those additional benefits are available to Kentuckians as long as the federal PHE allows. Currently, the state’s PHE is set to end April 14, 2022.
When the federal Public Health Emergency ends, it will trigger the end of the Emergency Allotments nationally. With an incoming $1.1 billion in SFRF funds (as part ARPA) the General Assembly could allocate SFRF monies to ramp families down from the additional SNAP benefits over several months instead of all at once.
Additionally, the General Assembly can use SFRF monies to pay for targeted outreach for food assistance programs like SNAP and the Women, Infants and Children’s Special Nutrition Program (WIC). WIC is a public health intervention that provides nutrition assistance to pregnant or breastfeeding mothers and families with children under 5. Targeted outreach could help boost low participation rates in WIC; in 2018, WIC only reached 55-60% of eligible Kentucky families.
Use state and federal dollars to feed more students
The General Assembly could fight hunger among school-age children by reimbursing schools for food they buy from local Kentucky farms. This would be good for school kids and the broader economy; for every $1 invested in farm to school programs, it stimulates an additional $0.60 to $2.14 of activity in local economies. Local food purchasing provides healthier options for kids and is a more sustainable model of purchasing food for an institution than conventional purchasing.
While postsecondary students are often overlooked in conversations about food insecurity, a national survey from 2020 reported that 3 in 5 college students were having trouble meeting their basic needs. To reduce hunger among postsecondary students, the General Assembly can follow the lead of states like Massachusetts, which allocated $45 million in SFRF monies towards a wide range of food insecurity issues, including $2.7 million towards hunger-free campus work. The SFRF could fund colleges and universities to hire SNAP outreach staff who connect students to resources like the University of Kentucky’s Basic Needs Coordinators. We could also fund an increase of the number of on-campus food retailers that accept SNAP, and support colleges and universities in creating partnerships like what Western Kentucky University has done with the Community Farmers Market, where students can use and even double the value of dollars from campus meal plans.
Dedicate state resources to deliver more senior meals
Seniors over the age of 60 in Kentucky face more food insecurity than the national average (10.4% in Kentucky versus 7.4% nationally). The Department of Aging and Independent Living (DAIL) administers the Nutrition Program for the Elderly, known as senior meals. Each year, this program provides meals to several million Kentucky seniors over 60 with low-incomes, both in their homes and in senior centers. With the help of federal funds, Kentucky eliminated longstanding waiting lists for senior meals in 2020 and 2021, delivering over 3.1 million meals in 2021. The legislature should continue meeting the need for meals for Kentuckians over 60 by allocating the estimated $36.2 million needed in each Fiscal Year 2022 and 2023, as currently included in House Bill 1 (HB 1) and HB 285. Without this increased state funding compared to what is in the current budget, DAIL estimates 2,000 seniors would go without these meals because of the end of federal funds.
Raise pay for anti-hunger program staff
Getting all Kentuckians the benefits they are eligible for is a big job. Yet state government employees, including those that work for the agency administering SNAP, have not seen an across-the-board raise in over a decade. That has resulted in pay that is too low to attract and retain trained staff. For SNAP participants, understaffing and high turnover mean long call wait times and relying on inexperienced workers who have difficulty administering these complex federal programs.
According to Chelsey Nickum, SNAP Outreach Specialist at God’s Pantry Food Bank which serves 50 counties in Central and Eastern Kentucky, staffing and administration are critical components of addressing hunger through programs like SNAP. In her work with seniors, for instance, Chelsey notes that: “Some days it feels like half of my job is explaining to people how to navigate the [automated SNAP hotline] menu. If and when applicants manage to get through to a person they still have to wait on hold, sometimes for over an hour, which is also especially hard on seniors. Some seniors are lucky enough to have family or friends who can help them navigate the process, but not everyone has that kind of support system.”
The starting wage as a Family Support Specialist for the Commonwealth of Kentucky — a position that among other things, assists families with applications to food assistance programs like SNAP — is estimated at $29,129. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services has seen a 17.4% decline in staffing since 2011. The pay is so low that it qualifies some workers for the very safety net programs they administer. For example, at the starting wage, a family of four is eligible for SNAP based on the estimated gross income limit.
This staffing crisis is compromising Kentucky’s ability to provide services to people that are eligible for them, like CHFS is experiencing with SNAP. While the Governor’s budget and the House budget provide a much-needed raise for social workers and a 6% across-the-board raise in 2023, they both neglect raises in 2024 for most employees. These proposals insufficiently invest in Kentucky’s state workforce, including Family Support Specialists, given the resources available to the General Assembly.