Thanksgiving is here and it is a time of celebration for families across the commonwealth. With an increase in statewide vaccination rates, Kentuckians are safely gathering with friends and loved ones. There are many reasons to give thanks, including a year of essential state and federal assistance alleviating food insecurity and childhood hunger.
Having enough food year-round has been an ongoing critical need for Kentuckians. Despite the increase in hardship for Kentucky families brought on by the pandemic, data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that food insecurity actually did not worsen significantly in 2020, for which we have the strengthened safety net to thank.
Across the commonwealth, the positive impacts of multiple forms of crucial food supports are being felt. Census data in the Household Pulse Survey shows the advanced monthly Child Tax Credit payments that began in July reduced household food hardship by a third. Additionally, Pandemic EBT has provided grocery money for the families of over 650,000 childcare and school-aged children in Kentucky, and reduced children’s food hardship by 30% in the two weeks following disbursement.
We also give thanks for the nutrition and sustenance that came our way through COVID-related expansions of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP “Emergency Allotments,” dependent on Kentucky’s declaration of a public health emergency, have provided households with maximum benefits for their household size since April 2020, boosting many families’ grocery budgets. According to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS), Emergency Allotments currently make up 42% of SNAP benefits in Kentucky.
Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, all SNAP participants saw a 15% increase in benefits between April and September 2021. On its heels in October, Kentuckians saw a permanent increase in food assistance through a change in the federal calculation of SNAP benefits, known as the Thrifty Food Plan. As a result, SNAP benefits increased by an average of 8% per household compared to the previous month, September — for a total 23% increase in household benefits compared to pre-pandemic levels – according to CHFS. The Thrifty Food Plan is estimated to pull 2.4 million SNAP recipients out of poverty, including more than 1 million children.
And importantly, some college students who were formerly ineligible for SNAP became eligible during the COVID-19 federal emergency; aid needed by the 38% of students at two-year colleges and 29% of students at four-year colleges who have reported food insecurity.
Not only do SNAP, Pandemic EBT and other supports keep food in the cupboards for Kentucky families, but they also strengthen our recovery from COVID as Kentuckians spend those resources out in their local economies. These proven tools help us reduce poverty, diminish racial disparities in food insecurity, fight overall household and childhood hunger, and stimulate the economy.
Safety net programs have prevented many Kentuckians from becoming hungrier during the pandemic. Still, many are struggling. According to data from the USDA, Kentucky remains one of the 9 states where the prevalence of food insecurity is higher than the national average. Before the pandemic and as we’re recovering from it, Kentuckians continue to struggle to find quality work with sufficient pay and work schedules, an issue compounded by our state’s lack of high-quality affordable child care.
We cannot afford to lose momentum in our efforts to relieve hunger. At the state level, Kentuckians need the legislature in the upcoming session to protect safety net supports and use a portion of remaining American Rescue Plan Act dollars to provide food relief to those still struggling. We need them to resist more legislation, as they’ve considered in previous sessions, that cuts critical safety net supports. Many families are already stretched thin, using every resource available to them to get by during these persistently unprecedented times, and efforts to cut the safety net could send them over the edge.
At the federal level, Kentuckians need Congress to finally pass the Build Back Better (BBB) Act when they come back from the Thanksgiving recess. BBB extends and makes permanent provisions ranging from the improved Child Tax Credit and free school meals through the School Lunch Community Eligibility Provision to summer grocery money through Summer EBT. BBB is critically needed to help families keep food on the table and remain out of hardship through this holiday season and beyond.
This column appeared in the River City News on Nov. 23, the State Journal on Nov. 24, the Courier-Journal on Nov. 26, and the Northern Kentucky Tribune on Nov. 28, 2021.