As the COVID-19 pandemic leads to layoffs and school closures, and as more people are staying at home to reduce the risk of infection, having enough food will be an increasing challenge. Public benefit programs providing nutrition assistance will be a key intervention in prioritizing family well-being and economic stimulus.
The federal Families First Act is a good start but action is still needed to expand nutrition benefits for low-income families. And while the state has already enacted a number of measures to minimize barriers to nutrition assistance, more can be done to ensure that people who already participate can continue to benefit and that people now facing food insecurity as a result of the pandemic can more easily access assistance.
Nutrition support is an essential component of COVID-19 response
Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) will help address the food insecurity that results from COVID-related layoffs, reduced income and physical distance from institutions like schools and senior centers that provide meals. But these programs are also essential to mitigate the negative health impacts of the crisis.
For instance, research is clear that SNAP improves health among participants. With Kentucky being the 6th most at-risk state for adults becoming seriously ill if infected due to already poor health, food security is a critical policy priority. This is particularly true for seniors who are also at much higher risk of serious illness if they are infected with COVID-19. Furthermore, these programs boost family food budgets and free up income for meeting other basic needs. SNAP benefits are quickly spent in the local economy, making them one of the most efficient mechanisms for economic stimulus in a downturn.
Recent federal legislation will help feed Kentuckians, but needs improvement
The second COVID-19 relief bill, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, provides several supports and flexibilities for states to address the growing number of food insecure individuals and families during this public health crisis.
The new law provides emergency additional benefits to some SNAP households. However, rather than a much-needed blanket increase for all SNAP households, this provision fails to increase benefits to households with the lowest incomes who currently already receive the maximum benefit. The USDA should reconsider their interpretation of the emergency funds in order to increase SNAP benefit levels by an across-the-board 15% increase to the maximum benefit instead. Congress could also temporarily increase the federal share of the cost of administering benefits, which is currently 50%. This would help free up diminished state resources and provide relief to the Department for Community Based Services (DCBS).
Another support provided in the Families First Act is Pandemic EBT, which provides additional benefits to households with children whose schools have closed. Estimated at $114 a month per child, the benefit is for children who participate in free or reduced price meals at school – 528,100 children in Kentucky – regardless of whether they were previously enrolled in SNAP. In order to disseminate benefits, DCBS and the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) will need to determine a process to get EBT cards to students who receive free and reduced price lunches but are not SNAP participants.
Additionally, not all of the 239,000 Kentucky children on SNAP receive free and reduced lunches. That means despite being food insecure they would not be eligible for Pandemic EBT. The USDA should allow all school-aged children to be eligible for these benefits and allow states to consider SNAP households – 113,000 in Kentucky – automatically eligible for the Pandemic EBT program. This would make the dissemination of emergency benefits more efficient and ensure no households with children fall through the cracks, leaving their families with fewer food resources when they need it the most.
Given the widespread business closures and layoffs in recent weeks, a particularly important component of the Families First Act is its waiver of existing work reporting requirements for adults under 50 without children in their homes. This change also has the effect of delaying the implementation of a new USDA rule that restricts states’ ability to waive work reporting requirements in areas where there are insufficient jobs.
The new law also provides several administrative flexibilities to states including the extension of certification periods, simplified application processes and reduced paperwork. These changes remove administrative barriers to continued participation in SNAP – which is both helpful for state workers who will soon face a spike in caseloads and also for individuals who won’t have to face as many hurdles to receiving food assistance.
The federal Families First Act creates the infrastructure to begin meeting the huge increase in need for food during this pandemic. Given the depth of the economic downturn and the unique power of SNAP to improve health, combat poverty and activate local economies, additional steps must be taken by the federal government in the next relief bill to utilize the full capacity of SNAP to stimulate the economy. A SNAP-based stimulus strategy was used in the Recovery Act that effectively prevented larger poverty increases and helped the economy during the Great Recession. It is essential that the next federal legislative package include a temporary increase to SNAP benefits to allow families to meet nutrition needs now and to boost the economy as we recover.
Kentucky must continue to act strategically and quickly to minimize COVID-19-related food insecurity
Governor Beshear has taken a number of appropriate actions to promote social distancing and minimize transmission of COVID-19, including the closure of public and private schools, senior centers, restaurants and non-essential retailers across Kentucky. Unavoidably, continued closures and growing economic hardship are creating new barriers to ensuring that Kentuckians, especially children and seniors who previously relied on school and senior nutrition programs, get the food they need.
Kentucky’s DCBS has already publically exercised some flexible authority to mitigate transmission of COVID-19 and make it easier for people to access food through SNAP. These actions include:
- Implementing Guidance for Limiting In-person Services at Family Support Offices.
- Before it became federal law in the Families First Act, the state waived work reporting requirements for all adults without a disability or children.
- Extended 3-month certification periods for all public assistance programs (SNAP, KTAP, CCAP, Medicaid, and State Supplementation) so that people who are currently enrolled stay enrolled for longer without facing barriers including in-person meetings.
- Extended call center times and phone line capacity.
- Allowed self-attested statements from applicants to verify income eligibility.
Additionally, KDE has requested and received a Summer Meals Non-Congregate Feeding waiver while schools are closed to provide meals to students who were receiving free and reduced price meals at school, and has expanded pick-up locations across the state. The Department of Public Health’s WIC program has received a Physical Presence waiver to minimize in-person visits and to postpone lab work requirements to receive WIC benefits and a waiver to issue benefits remotely. Senior nutrition programs have created community plans, like Louisville’s Senior March for Meals, to continue and expand meal deliveries for the seniors that need it the most.
Kentucky’s nutrition assistance programs can go even further and provide more administrative simplifications to make it easier for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to get benefits to people who need them. For example in the SNAP program, the state could:
- Waive any periodic reporting requirements and extend certification periods to the maximum available (24 months for seniors and persons with disabilities and 12 for all other households) so that people don’t face re-enrollment related barriers to continuous nutrition support.
- Create flexibility within required federal reporting, known as Quality Control Interviews, by opting to replace face-to-face interviews with telephone interviews and accepting the optional 45 day extension made allowable by the USDA.
- Eliminate bans on SNAP participation for people behind on child support payment or who were previously convicted of a drug-related felony.
Similarly, with regard to the WIC program, the state can request a waiver to extend all certification periods for up to six months; provide 30 days of temporary WIC benefits to eligible families who do not have all their documentation during their enrollment appointment; minimize re-authorization requirements for WIC-participating retailers; and provide flexibility with nutrition requirements to replace hard-to-find WIC-approved items with similar products.
Action has being taken, but much more can and should be done to meet the needs of people who will increasingly struggle to put food on the table during this pandemic.