Explanation of the Current Hunger Crisis and How to Best Solve It

04.16.2020

To:                  Elected Officials, Corporate and Philanthropic Leaders, and General Public

From:             Joel Berg, CEO, Hunger Free America  

Subject:         Update on the COVID-19 U.S. Hunger Crisis and the Most Effective Responses

 

Executive Summary

The United States is now facing the gravest hunger crisis in modern times, with more than one in three children now missing meals or suffering from reduced portion sizes because their families don’t have enough money for food. Child hunger is now five times the rate before the crisis and adult hunger is 2.5 times the rate before the crisis.

The hunger crisis worsens the health care crisis and economic crisis, and vice versa.  A large body of scientific evidence proves that, when humans are malnourished, their immune systems are comprised and they are more likely to contract and transmit COVID-19 and other diseases.

When children are hungry, they are less able to learn (even at home), and when adults are hungry, they are less able to gain and keep employment. Malnourished older adults are more likely to require institutionalization, which further increases their odds of contracting and spreading COVID-19.  When families lose income and/or have extra health care costs, they are far more likely to go hungry.  Thus while some have hinted that they believe the nation must first address the health and economic crises before  taking on the hunger crisis, the reality is that none of those crises can be resolved without addressing the others.

The facts demonstrate that the single best way – by far – to get the largest amount of food to the greatest number of low-income people in this crisis is to dramatically increase participation in pre-existing federal nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC, as well as new programs such as Pandemic-EBT.  Such government programs also keep workers at grocery stores, farmers markets and food processing plants employed, while ensuring vital income for farmers and truckers. The Trump Administration must stop putting roadblocks in the way of doing so.  States, counties, and cities must ramp-up efforts to enable electronic applications to such programs. Government agencies and philanthropies should prioritize giving additional funds to organizations (such as Hunger Free America) that help families and individuals apply for such benefits.

Before the crisis, about 29 million school children received school meals; of those, 21 million received free and reduced-price meals. More than one million older Americans received meals from senior centers. State, city, and school district efforts to offer alternative ways for children and seniors to get meals have been heroic, but they only serve a small percentage of children and seniors who received meals before, and many require people to come to centralized sites to pick-up food, thereby reducing social distancing and thus have increased risk for spreading COVID-19. Thus it is imperative that the federal government, state, county and tribal governments, school districts, National Guard units, and AmeriCorps national service programs work together to dramatically ramp-up the home delivery of free meals to vulnerable populations in a way that minimizes the health risks for both those delivering the meals and those receiving the meals.

In normal times, food charities – such as food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, and food rescue organizations – provide some help filling in  gaps in the safety net. But it is vital to recognize that, even though federal nutrition safety programs are underutilized, they still dwarf the impact of charitable food programs.  In fact, in 2019, such government programs provided at least 11 times the dollar amount of food to low-income Americans as did the combined efforts of every food charity in America. Since the COVID-19 crisis, many food pantries and soup kitchens (which often rely on staff and volunteers that are older Americans) have shut-down, reduced their hours of operation, or otherwise curtailed their operations.  Thus, while it’s important that such agencies now  receive a significant boost  in food and funding to meet their skyrocketing demand, donors need to understand that such charities are a wholly inadequate – and sometimes inefficient way – to solve this hunger crisis. That is why a rapid expansion of government safety net programs is the surest, fastest, and most efficient way to both stem the hunger crisis and limit unemployment.

The findings and recommendations in this memorandum are based on Hunger Free America’s work nationwide as an advocacy and direct service organization, especially our direct service work responding to hunger hotline calls from around the country and helping people and families apply for government food assistance programs. We have also directly polled more than 1,000 people nationwide and more than 3000 additional people in our hometown of New York City  to ask how the current crisis has affected their ability to attain adequate food. We are also in frequent consultation by conference call with people now directly suffering from hunger, as well as with appointed and elected government officials and their staffs, food industry leaders, and peer anti-hunger advocacy groups and service providers. Consequently, our findings are based on real-world, on-the-ground, conditions.

How the Previous U.S. Hunger Crisis Made the Current Crisis Far Worse

In 2018, when the stock market was still soaring and a pandemic was not stalking the nation,  America suffered from the erosion of the middle class, high poverty, hunger, and homelessness, and the steep decline of the American dream.  This profoundly impacted other critical issues like health, education, racial inequity, economic competitiveness, gender inequality, and national security.

Median household income was $63,179 in 2018, not statistically different from the 2017 median.

38.1 million Americans lived below the meager federal poverty line of $20,780 for a family of three in 2018 (U.S. Census Bureau). While the poverty rate in 2018 was slightly lower than in 2017, the number of Americans living in poverty was still higher than in 2007, before the recession, and 66 percent higher than in 1973, when — due to both broad-based economic growth and the War on Poverty — poverty reached its lowest level in modern times.

In contrast, the wealthiest 400 Americans had a combined net worth of $2.9 trillion. That $2.9 trillion figure is the equivalent of $76,115 for each of the 38.1 million Americans in poverty.

And in 2018, 93 million Americans lived at 200% of the poverty line or below.  That means that nearly a third of all Americans lived in or near poverty.

37.2 million Americans – more than the combined populations of Ohio, Georgia, and the five states of New England – lived in households in 2018 defined by the federal government as “food insecure,” unable to always afford enough food.  In New York State more than two million people lived in food insecure homes; in New York City alone, more than one million people do.

According to Hunger Free America’s analysis of federal data, in 2016-2018, 12.2 million American children (one in six children), nearly 10 percent of employed U.S. adults (14.3 million workers), and 5.3 million (one in 13) Americans age 60 or older lived in such food insecure households.

Neither low- and middle-income households nor government agencies are well-prepared to deal with a major economic downturn.  One in five American families has zero or negative net assets. A nationwide poll conducted in early April 2020 of 1,000 likely voters commissioned by Hunger Free America and A Place at the Table asked: “How long could you live without working before you worried about facing a major crisis in terms of being able to afford basic necessities like rent/mortgage, food or health care?” In response, 62 percent of those polled said they could last less than 6 months, with 21 percent saying they would last less than a month.

Unemployment  insurance programs in most states are generally not well-suited to meet the needs of employees in the gig economy, so workers who try to survive on sporadic job assignments get very little government help.

Cash welfare as we knew it has essentially been eliminated; even among Americans in poverty, only one in 19 now receive cash welfare.

Furthermore, as the caseloads for cash assistance and SNAP (formerly called food stamps) have declined over the last decade – and as social service agencies have automated many of their operations – most states, counties, and cities have very significantly downsized their social service workforces. If those government agencies need to handle increased caseloads again, most will be unable to easily do so, despite technological improvements.

In sum, given that our government and society refused to solve hunger in the best of times, it is no wonder that it is skyrocketing in the worst of times.

Today’s National and New York City Hunger Crisis Is Worst in Modern Times

As was the case with Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, major natural disasters not only create more problems for low-income Americans, but they also rip the bandages off the previously covered-up, pre-existing wounds suffered by people in poverty, enabling America to better see the full extent of the concrete harm caused by the nation’s astonishing inequality.

To make matters worse, this is the first time in modern U.S. history that a mass public health crisis is being combined with an economic collapse.

Child hunger is soaring across America during the current health and economic crises, with 37 percent of parents nationwide cutting the size of meals or skipping meals for their children because they did not have enough money for food in the last month, according to a new poll of more than 1,000 Americans nationwide by Hunger Free America.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2018, when the overall economy was relatively strong, seven percent of U.S. children suffered from such poverty-related food shortages.  The five-fold hike in child hunger in this crisis is clearly due to the loss of tens of millions of school meals each day coupled with a massive reduction in income for parents.

The new poll also found that, among adults, 24 percent skipped meals or cut portions because they lacked enough money for food. That’s about two and a half times the adult hunger rate of 2018. More than 38 percent of households said their income dropped in the last month, and large numbers of families said they are either having trouble meeting basic expenses now or are worried that they won’t be able to pay their bills if the economic and health crises continue much longer. 

Based on an accompanying poll by Hunger Free America of more than 300 people in New York City, we found that child hunger is soaring  during the current health and economic crises, with 38 percent of parents cutting the size of meals or skipping meals that their child normally would have eaten because they did not have enough money for food in the last month.

In 2016-2018, when the overall economy was relatively strong, more than 16 percent of the city’s children lived in food insecure homes.  Thus child hunger has more than doubled.

The poll  also found that, among NYC adults, 34 percent skipped meals or cut portions because they lacked enough money for food. That’s nearly three and a half times the adult hunger rate of 2018. Forty-seven percent of NYC households said their income dropped in the last month, and over half of families said they are either having trouble meeting basic expenses now or are worried that they won’t be able to pay their bills if the economic and health crises continue much longer.

The Health Care Crisis is Made Worse by the Hunger Crisis

As reported by the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases:

“Infection and malnutrition have always been intricately linked. Malnutrition is the primary cause of immunodeficiency worldwide, and we are learning more and more about the pathogenesis of this interaction. Five infectious diseases account for more than one-half of all deaths in children aged <5 years, most of whom are undernourished. Micronutrient deficiencies have effects such as poor growth, impaired intellect, and increased mortality and susceptibility to infection.’

Reported the World Health Organization,

“The combination of communicable diseases (CDs) and malnutrition is a major public health problem, particularly among infants and children… Both undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies increase the morbidity and mortality from CDs... The relationship is synergistic; malnutrition compromises natural immunity leading to increased susceptibility to infection and more frequent and severe episodes of CDs. Likewise, infection can aggravate or precipitate malnutrition through decreased appetite and intake, malabsorption, nutrient loss or increased metabolic needs. Severe acute malnutrition often masks symptoms and signs of infectious diseases making prompt clinical diagnosis and early treatment difficult. Nutritional and CD interventions must be integrated to address the overall impact of malnutrition on mortality from CDs effectively.”

It is clear that there is no way we can solve the current COVID-19 crisis without simultaneously addressing the hunger crisis.

Impact of the Loss of Jobs and Income

In 201612018, 14.7 million (nearly one in ten) U.S. workers, most of whom were in service jobs, were paid so little that they couldn’t afford food, according to Hunger Free America’s analysis of federal data.

Now many of those same people are unemployed or have had their meager incomes slashed as their workplaces reduce hours or they lose tips.  In addition, lower middle class families, who were on the edge of poverty before the crisis, are in poverty now due to lost jobs and income.

In March alone, the number of unemployed Americans rose by 1.4 million to 7.1 million people.  April numbers will likely show a much sharper spike in unemployment, and by one estimate, at least 13 percent of Americans are unemployed. In Hunger Free America’s national poll, more than 38 percent of households said their income dropped in the last month, and large numbers of families said they are either having trouble meeting basic expenses now or are worried that they won’t be able to pay their bills if the economic and health crises continue much longer.  In a cruel irony, most of the people who lost jobs or income were earning the least money to begin with.

Not only do school meals reduce child hunger, they save struggling families money. If, for example,  it would normally cost a family with two school-aged children  $2 per lunch and $1 per breakfast per child  per day to feed their children, and if their children each got free breakfasts and lunches at school, it  would save that family $6 per day. Schools are normally in session 180 school days per year, which means that family would save $1,080 per year on meals for their kids.   When kids don’t get those school meals, low-income parents without extra funds often have to skip meals or reduce portion sizes.

In 2019, more than 1.5 million older Americans obtained more than 75 million meals a year at senior centers, religious institutions, schools, and other community spaces serving meals through the congregate meals program established by the federal Older Americans Act. Many of these centers are closed due to the pandemic.

At a time when struggling families will need to spend more on food due to the lack of school or senior center meals, they will have even less money to buy food. Families are forced to use more of their scarce resources to pay for child care (if they are essential workers) and health care. Consequently, the new health care and economic crises are exacerbating the massive, pre-existing conditions caused by the U.S. being the only industrialized, Western nation without universal health care, paid sick leave, and widespread affordable child care.

Why Are So Few Children and Seniors Getting Alternative Meals?

Official government reporting on school meals and senior meals participation usually lags by a number of months. For example, as of April 15, 2020, the most recent National School Lunch Program data posted by USDA was for December 2019.

So we don’t yet know for sure how many fewer meals children and older Americans are now getting at alternative feeding compared to what they were previously eating schools and senior centers meals which are now closed, but our best guess that the percentage e of meals they are getting now is only a small fraction of the meals that they were getting previously at schools and senior centers.

A CEO of a company that provides meals to schools told Hunger Free America that his company normally provides 600,000 school meals per day in numerous states, but that the company is now providing only 12 percent of the school meals previously provided.

Why are so few children and seniors now getting alternative meals?  The likely top reason is that, in normal times, when children and older Americans are clustered together at schools and senior centers, they are a captive audience, so to speak, so it’s relatively easy to get them all meals.  In contrast, now that they are mostly  at home, if they  need to leave  to either go to a site to pick up food or have food delivered to their homes, the logistical obstacles are enormous.

To understand the current dilemma it is useful to understand challenges the nation faced in normal times when providing low-income children meals over the summer, when schools are out. While the federal government funds a program that pays for all or most of the costs for free summer breakfasts and lunches for anyone under the age of 18 (at sites such as schools, parks, and pools) in low-income neighborhoods, only about 15 percent of kids who normally get school meals get summer meals at these  sites.

Government summer meals programs, in normal times, have low participation rates for many reasons:

  • If their parents work during  the day, it may be more difficult/dangerous for kids to get to school meal sites.
  • There are generally far fewer summer meals sites than there are schools that serve meals during the school year, so many children live long distances from summer food sites.
  • Parents may not know about summer meals sites or are embarrassed to send their kids to them.
  • Meals are usually pre-packaged, not heated (except by the sun and air), and often don’t taste that great and/or are culturally inappropriate.
  • While  the nutritional quality of summer meals has mostly improved over the past decade due to improved nutritional standards implemented during the Obama Administration, many parents still perceive they are unhealthy.

Mass, alternative food distribution sites for seniors and children likely have all those normal challenges, but many extra challenges due to the pandemic:

  • Travelling to food pick-up locations could expose them to more disease risks, as well as cost money them for travel.
  • If schools, senior centers, 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.
  • People who have COVID-19 or symptoms of it should stay away from mass food distributions, but, in any case, most would be too weak to travel to them.
  • The sites are too few and far between. For example, while New York City has 1,600 public schools and 250 senior centers, it only has 400 open sites for alternative meal pick-ups.
  • Some school districts nationwide 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.

For all those reasons, the alternative meals sites in New York City and nationwide can only scratch the surface of the gargantuan need for extra food. Part of the problem is that governments are using the same practices they typically use after normal natural disasters – distributing food from public sites for the mass distribution of commodities or hot meals – when an entirely new approach is needed.

Thus it is imperative that the federal government, state, county and tribal governments, school districts, National Guard units, and AmeriCorps national service programs work together to dramatically ramp-up the home delivery of free meals to vulnerable populations in a way that minimizes the health risks for both those delivering  meals and those receiving meals.

Before the nation ramps-up home food delivery in mass, we want to make sure that every possible step is being taken to ensure that, in doing so, we minimize the risks of spreading COVID19 or other communicable diseases.  The federal government, and/or state or local governments should develop clear safety protocols for home food deliveries that answer the following concerns:

1) Food pick-ups - How can social distancing be ensured at pickup sites? How can  risks of  food / packaging  contamination be minimized?

2) Transportation - How can we maximize the use of vehicles with one or a few passengers?

3) Drop off - For single family homes, will food be dropped off on porches? For multi-story buildings, will  food be dropped off in common areas or brought to each door?  Will people making  deliveries have phone numbers of those receiving food so they can be called or texted as soon as food is dropped off?  If food is dropped off in commons areas, what protocols will be used to ensure social distancing among residents picking up the food in the common areas? How will social distancing be used in elevators, for either people delivering food or residents picking it up?

4) While people who are ill, health care workers, police officers, firefighters, and EMTs should obviously get first  priority for appropriate masks, gloves, gowns and testing, could those doing deliveries get second preference? How can that be institutionalized?

The Importance of Federal Benefits: a New York City Case Study

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio just announced a plan to spend $170 million for food at mass distribution sites and for home delivery.

However, it is concerning that the plan only mentions in passing the importance of increasing SNAP participation, and doesn’t mention WIC. 

In 2019,  SNAP benefits brought in $2.7 billion into the shopping carts of New York City  families, not only dramatically reducing hunger, but also boosting jobs in the food sector.

In January of 2019, fully 1,487,820 New Yorkers (875,030 New York City households) obtained SNAP, and, even then, many New Yorkers were eligible, but did not get benefits. The average benefit in the City is now about $251 per household per month, equaling $3,012 per year.  As the mayor has stated, an “estimated half-million could lose their jobs or have lost their jobs in immediate future.”  Some of those people might be excluded from SNAP due to their immigration status, although they would be eligible for P-EBT. But, let’s say 250,000 additional households  are now eligible for SNAP; if the City worked with nonprofits to get every one of those households SNAP, that would equal $753 million in additional  benefits. And even if the City and nonprofits were able to help only half of them (125,000) access SNAP, it would equal about $376 million in benefits per  year, more than twice the amount of money the City is now planning to spend on food distribution.

We don’t have good NYC-specific data for WIC, but statewide in New York, in 2016, more than 40% of the pregnant women and children under five failed to receive it. WIC has no immigration restrictions, and has higher income eligibility than SNAP, so the number of WIC eligible families has surely skyrocketed in recent weeks. Plus Congress just appropriated $500 million more to WIC nationwide. In 2019, 378,946 women and children statewide received WIC, receiving  $237 million in food supplements; assuming that half of those are in New York City, effective WIC outreach could help NYC families get tens of millions of dollars more in assistance.

In addition to providing a far greater dollar amount of food than direct food giveaways, the federal benefits have three other distinct advantages:

  1. They are paid for 100% by the federal government, when at least some of the direct food giveaways will likely come from City tax dollars
  2. They boost jobs at grocery stores, farmers markets, bodegas, etc.
  3. They allow food choice that is mostly impossible in food giveaways, allowing families to choose for themselves the foods and portion sizes that most meet the needs of their health conditions, religious practices, cultural norms, and personal tastes.

Thus, to carry Mayor deBlasio’s pledge to ensure “No New Yorker Goes Hungry,” the City will need to do much more to work with nonprofits to boost SNAP and WIC participation, with ramped-up programmatic and financial support, as well as greater attention in the  communications materials release to partners, the press, and the public. 

Top Federal Actions Needed

The facts demonstrate that the single best way – by far – to get the largest amount of food to the greatest number of low-income people in this crisis is to dramatically increase participation in pre-existing federal nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC, as well as new programs such as Pandemic-EBT.  Such government programs also keep workers at grocery stores, farmers markets and food processing plants employed, while ensuring vital income for farmers and truckers.

But it is vital to recognize that, even though federal nutrition safety programs are underutilized, they still dwarf the impact of charitable food programs.  In fact, in 2019, such government programs provided at least 11 times the dollar amount of food to low-income Americans as did the combined efforts of every food charity in America.

Administrative Steps Needed by The Trump Administration

Even in this grave national disaster and hunger crisis, the Trump Administration is keeping food aid away from struggling Americans, in the following ways:

  • The long-existing Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) gives food assistance to low-income households with food loss or damage caused by a disaster. Because of the unique needs of disaster survivors, D-SNAP uses different standards than normal SNAP. People who would not normally qualify for SNAP may qualify for D-SNAP.  Yet President Donald Trump has refused to issue the very specific kind of state disaster declarations necessary to allow states to use Disaster SNAP,  which they used after hurricanes and 9/11.  

  • The second federal stimulus bill enacted into law, which was pushed first through the U.S. House by Speaker Pelosi, created vast new, federally-funded programs to give extra food purchasing dollars to all families with children in closed schools on ATM-like cards. Some are calling this the  Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program. The bill authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to approve state agency plans to provide P-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 P-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. These benefits would be particularly vital because they would include very vulnerable immigrants. Hunger Free America teamed up with the Education Trust to provide guidance to states on how they could implement this new program most effectively. Numerous states have submitted plans to USDA to implement P-EBT, but, as of April 15, the Trump Administration had approved of only two state plans (Michigan and Rhode Island).  The stakes are high. In New York State alone, the state’s plan, if approved by USDA, would approve P-EBT benefits to the parents of about 1.6 million children in an amount exceeding $850 million.

We need to pressure the Trump Administration to immediately enable states to fully use all these already existing programs

Legislative Steps Needed by Congress

  • Our top federal legislative priority for Congress is to boost SNAP benefits.  The White House reneged on the deal to increase SNAP benefits in the CARES Act.  The Congressional GOP still opposes such a hike.  In Hunger Free America’s recent national poll, 62 percent of Americans support increasing SNAP, 24 percent want funding left the same, and only 5 percent want the program cut. In other words, 12 times as many people want to boost SNAP as those who want to cut it. Even among Republicans and residents of red states, support for increasing SNAP funding was strong.  Specifically, we need Congress to boost SNAP benefits by 15 percent, which would only boost the average SNAP benefit by 20 cents per meal, from the current level of $1.34 per meal to $1.54 per meal.  We also need Congress to increase the minimum monthly SNAP benefit from the current level of $16 to $30. Lastly, Congress should formally put on hold Trump Administration rules to slash SNAP. 
  • Such provisions are strongly supported by Senate and House Democrats. U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said, “It is unacceptable that any child, senior or needy person should ever have to go hungry during this crisis. That is why I will continue to fight to include a benefit increase to SNAP, our main program to stave off hunger. It puts more food on hungry families’ tables – and helps our farmers in this time of need. Increasing SNAP should be a no brainer to help communities get through this health crisis.” Said U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand “The SNAP program provides a lifeline for families facing financial hardship. As the unemployment rate climbs daily, it is imperative that Congress increase the SNAP benefits available. Not only will hungry children and seniors benefit, but so will our farmers, as more money will be available to buy their fresh fruits and vegetables.”
  • “As a nation, it is immoral that we are allowing child hunger to be a consequence of the ongoing health and economic crises,” said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro. “Families that were already struggling to make ends meet before COVID-19 has predictably fallen through the cracks. I fought hard to increase SNAP benefits in recent coronavirus response packages, but to no avail because the White House and Congressional Republicans did not want to address this urgent problem. These are the results as Hunger Free America has found, and they are unconscionable. Child hunger should not be a partisan issue. Congress needs to come together to increase SNAP benefits for children and families immediately.” U.S. Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, Chair of the House Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations, said, “Families across America are struggling to put food on the table as workers see their jobs or wages disappear and school closures strip students of routine school meals. Food banks have played a critical role in supporting and feeding families during this difficult time, yet this new national poll demonstrates food banks alone cannot manage the increases in hunger we are currently seeing. SNAP is the nation’s most effective tool in fighting hunger. As we continue to address the needs of the current pandemic, Congress has a moral obligation to act swiftly to boost SNAP benefits to protect children, families, and vulnerable individuals from increased hunger and hardship.”

In addition to enacting those top priorities, we urge Congress to include in any upcoming relief bill the following, which would help in both short-term and long-term recovery:

  • HOPE provisions to enable online applications for a wide variety of food and poverty program. See  S.3484 (Gillibrand) and H.R.6217 (Morelle/McGovern). Given the need to ramp up applications as soon as possible while keeping social services offices closed to the public, these provisions are needed now more than ever.

  • Money to states to give out to nonprofit groups to aid with signing people up for Pandemic SNAP, D-SNAP, regular SNAP, and WIC.  Significant numbers of new people will be eligible for these benefits, and state and county social service agencies will be too swamped  to provide the necessary application assistance, so groups that already assist in SNAP and WIC applications   need extra funds to expand such efforts rapidly.

  • Increase funding to the USDA National Hunger Clearinghouse/ National Hunger Hotline from the current level of $250,000 to $400,000 to allow the contractor (currently Hunger Free America) to be able to better respond to the recent, massive (10-fold) increase in call volume.

  • Expand the USDA pilot project that allows online SNAP redemption for home deliveries. Include funds for shipping fees for smaller retailers. Ensure that expansion also includes small and mid-size grocers, online food companies, farmers markets, farm stands, and community supported agriculture sites.

Generally restaurants are ineligible for authorization to accept SNAP benefits as a form of payment. At present, Americans who receive SNAP cannot use their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card at restaurants to purchase hot food or food intended for immediate consumption unless their State participates in the SNAP Restaurant Meals Program (RMP) and unless they are elderly, disabled, and/or homeless, and they  are part of this target population.  The law should be changed to allow any SNAP recipient in any state or territory to participate, and more restaurants, including take out restaurants, to be registered in the program.

  • Create a pilot program to increase regional food processing centers for dairy, eggs and produce to both reduce food waste and distribute free or low-cost foods to low-income Americans and food charities.

Greatest Need for Funding – Benefits Access Assistance

As explained in detail above, the single best way – by far – to get the largest amount of food to the greatest number of low-income people in this crisis is to dramatically increase participation in pre-existing federal nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC, as well as new programs such as Pandemic-EBT.

As many people will be newly eligible for these benefits and may not speak English, it is critical for nonprofit groups to conduct outreach and assistance, particularly in languages other than English.  For example, Hunger Free America’s Benefits Access team works across New York City to pre-screen individuals for SNAP benefits and to assist eligible individuals with applying.  Each dollar we spend specifically on a SNAP outreach worker generates $33 in federally-funded SNAP benefits. Additionally, we have a WIC Help Specialist who works to connect low-income pregnant women and caregivers with the WIC Program, which serves a particularly high level of immigrants.

We  also provide AmeriCorps VISTA participants and technical assistance to nonprofit groups nationwide to ramp-up their benefits access efforts.

If extra funding were provided to Hunger Free America for benefits access, we could both dramatically ramp up our activity in New York City and give sub-grants to other organizations nationwide to enable them to do so.

Vast new resources have recently been provided to food banks nationwide, but very limited resources have been dedicated to benefits access. Given the magnitude of this crisis, we urge philanthropic, corporate, and government funders to support both direct food distribution and benefits access work.