Anti-Hunger Advocates Praise Senate Passage of COVID-19 Relief Bill

03.18.2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:

Nicole Aber, 646-627-7741

Naber@hungerfreeamerica.org          

“Important First Step, but More Will Need to be Done to Bolster Incomes and Provide Food”

 

Hunger-Relief Provisions of the Bill Detailed Below

 

Hunger Free America, a nationwide direct service and advocacy organization, applauded the U.S. Senate for passing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, H.R. 6201, which passed the House last Friday and which is expected to be signed by President Donald Trump.

The economic relief bill would significantly lessen the hunger crisis, not only providing more funds to make it easier for schools, senior programs, and food charities to provide alternative meals, but, most significantly, creating a vast new, federally-funded program to give extra food purchasing dollars to all families with children in closed schools on ATM-like cards. The bill also includes paid sick leave and expanded unemployment compensation funding, which will more broadly aid struggling working families, maintaining some of their food purchasing power. 

In 2018, when the economy was still strong, 37 million Americans, including 11 million U.S. children, lived in food insecure households, unable to afford an adequate supply of food. In the last few days, tens of millions of low-income students have lost access to school lunches, breakfasts, and after-school snacks and suppers due to school closures. Large numbers of older Americans have lost meals due to senior center shutdowns. In addition, millions of Americans who previously worked for modest wages and/or depended on tips to survive have suddenly lost jobs and/or have suffered from dramatic reductions in incomes.

Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, released this statement in response to the bill’s passage:

“This is an important first step — and tens of millions will likely be helped by this — but given the magnitude of the crisis, more will need to be done to bolster incomes and provide food.

The instantaneous loss of tens of millions of school meals and tens of thousands of senior meals each day – combined with the rapid reduction in income for numerous low-income workers – has greatly worsened the country’s pre-existing hunger crisis. This is the first time in modern U.S. history that we have seen a nationwide natural disaster combined with an economic collapse, so we can’t even begin to imagine the long-term devastation for the nation, particularly for the vast number of people struggling.

We urge President Trump to immediately sign this emergency bill into law.

Crises such as Katrina, Sandy, and the coronavirus pandemic rip the bandages off society’s most gaping wounds, forcing the nation to confront the reality of how each crisis greatly worsened the pre-existing maladies of hunger, poverty, and inequality. I hope that, after the immediate pandemic subsides, this prompts the nation to launch broader efforts to solve these long-term crises.”

DETAILS OF ANTI-HUNGER PROVISIONS OF ECONOMIC RELIEF BILL

The bill states: “The supplemental appropriations provided by the bill are designated as emergency spending, which is exempt from discretionary spending limit.” What that means is that – unlike normal bills, which require other programs to be cut or taxes to be raised to pay for any new spending under so-called PAYGO provisions — this bill is not subject to PAYGO and therefore does not require spending reduction or tax increases to pay for it. Rather, the spending for this bill increased the federal budget deficit, as do tax cuts for which offsets are not found.

All funding through the bill is supposed to expire at the end of this federal fiscal year, which ends September 30, 2020, and is supposed to be used for emergency purposes only related to COVID-19.

Nutrition Assistance Grants for U.S. Territories

The bill provides $100 million to the Secretary of Agriculture to provide grants to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa for nutrition assistance. This is particularly important since Puerto Rico’s main federal food aid program, the Nutrition Assistance Program, was chronically under-funded even before Hurricane Maria. Since the hurricane, Puerto Rico has faced a serious food crisis. Puerto Rico now has such a high poverty rate that, as of November 2019, 1,298,518 (41 percent) island residents received food aid through the Nutrition Assistance Program.

Because the combined population of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa are about 110,000 people (about 1/29th of the population of Puerto Rico), if 95 percent of the $100 million in this new funding went to Puerto Rico, that would equal $95 million, which would equal only an extra $73 dollars between now and September for each of the participants in Puerto Rico’s Nutrition Assistance Program.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

The federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, better known as WIC, provides nutritional supplements to pregnant women and children under five. This bill provides an additional $500 million to the program. The bill also authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to waive administrative requirements for WIC participation, including the requirement for a participant to have a physical presence in a WIC clinic to assess their nutritional risk.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)

The bill provides an addition $400 million (of which up to $100 million can be used for distribution costs) to increase the availability of commodities (mostly canned and boxed foods) given out by food banks, soup kitchens, and food pantries nationwide.

Food Programs for Older Americans

The bill appropriates $160 million for home-delivered nutrition programs such as Meals on Wheels and $10 million for nutrition services for Native Americans. The bill also allots $80 million for congregate nutrition services, meaning meals delivered to older Americans at senior centers, religious institutions, schools, and other community spaces serving meals through the congregate meals program established by the federal Older Americans Act.

The bill also provides states with more flexibility on how they can enable their older residents to access such meals.

School Meals Programs

Under pre-existing federal law, all school lunches and breakfasts must be served in the school buildings, and variation in the way any meals are served by school districts must not cost the federal government any additional money. The bill allows states and school districts to temporarily use alternative methods of food distribution (such as giving children meals to take home from school distribution sites) and allows states and school districts to spend more federal funds to do so.

The bill also allows additional flexibility in the federally-funded Child And Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which funds meals at eligible afterschool programs, child care centers, homeless shelters, day care homes, and adult day care centers.

Hunger Free America points out both the benefits and drawbacks of schools allowing students to show up at schools and/or other mass distributions to bring meals home. While it it makes sense that many schools that have closed due to the Coronavirus are allowing children to show up at school to obtain food to take home, this approach is problematic for a number of reasons:

•           If schools and workplaces are closed specifically to prevent people from congregating, then giving out food to large numbers of children congregating together could be counter-productive.

•           If their parents are still working during the day, it may be more difficult/dangerous for the kids to get meals.

•           Some schools have limited such pick-ups to families with cars; many of the lowest-income families don’t own cars or the parents in such families must use their car to get to work.

•           Many children live long distances from their schools, and travelling to food pick-up locations could expose them to more disease risks, as well as cost them additional money for travel.

•           To date, USDA has only given waiver approval to this alternative meal delivery method to schools in which 50% or more of their students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. Yet there are still many low-income children in schools – particularly in suburban and rural areas – that do not qualify for this waiver. If such schools are closed, the low-income students in these schools would miss out on school meals entirely.

While we have not seen data yet on the effectiveness of such alternative food distribution efforts by schools, it is highly likely that they will serve far fewer children than normal school meals programs on regular school days.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – Formerly Known as the Food Stamp Program

The most impactful part of the bill in terms of reducing hunger is the creation of a vast new, federally-funded program to give extra food purchasing dollars to all families with children in closed schools on ATM-like cards. Some are calling this a Pandemic EBT program.

To be precise, the bill authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to approve state agency plans to provide Pandemic EBT benefits to households with children who would receive free or reduced-price school lunches if not for the closure of their schools due to the pandemic emergency.

Under the bill, the Secretary of Agriculture may approve state plans to provide Pandemic EBT benefits to eligible households with children who may or may not already be participating in SNAP. Eligible children must be receiving free or reduced-price school meals and be enrolled at a school that is closed for no less than 5 consecutive days due to the pandemic emergency based on an outbreak of Coronavirus. Benefits provided to approved households can be no less than the value of school meals at the federal free rate over the course of five school days for each eligible child in the household. 

The bill also temporary waives the requirement that would ordinarily remove abled-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) who are unemployed from the SNAP program if they are unable to find work.

While the bill does not explicitly address the pre-existing USDA Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP), which gives food assistance to low-income households with food loss or damage caused by a natural disaster, we believe governors have pre-existing authority to request – and the federal government has pre-existing authority to grant — use of D-SNAP for up to a month in in areas particularly hard hit by the pandemic and/or job losses.

We also note that the overall, regular SNAP program is designed to expand when unemployment increases and/or incomes declines; so states should also ramp up their activities to enroll newly-eligible Americans in SNAP. The House bill gives the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to issue blanket waivers to adjust SNAP issuance, applications, and reporting requirements during this public health emergency declaration, instead of having each state request those flexibilities; but even if the House bill doesn’t become law and that extra flexibility is not granted, states still have many existing ways to enroll newly unemployed individuals in SNAP.

Other Economic Aid

The House bill also includes paid sick leave and expanded unemployment compensation funding, which will more broadly aid struggling working families, maintaining some of their food purchasing power. 

Specifically, the bill established a federal emergency paid leave benefits program to provide payments to employees taking unpaid leave due to the coronavirus outbreak.

It expands the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to require businesses with fewer than 500 employees to provide paid leave for all employees (employed for 30 days) for a qualifying need related to a public health emergency related to the Coronavirus declared by a federal, state, or local authority.

The employee must be compensated for this leave at a level that is at least two-thirds of an employee’s regular rate of pay. The first 14 days for which an employee takes FMLA leave under Division C may consist of unpaid leave. However, an employee may elect to substitute any accrued vacation leave, personal leave, or medical or sick leave provided by the employer in lieu of unpaid leave.

The bill outlines specific levels of reimbursement to covered employers and certain individuals in the form of payroll credits and tax credits for the leave payments required by the legislation. The bill also expands unemployment benefits and provides grants to states for processing and paying claims.