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Coronavirus Outbreak

Food Banks Say $450 Million Can’t Make Up for SNAP Shortfall (1)

March 31, 2020, 5:37 PMUpdated: April 1, 2020, 2:51 PM

Food bank and soup kitchen operators struggling to meet overwhelming demand say they’re grateful for $450 million in the new coronavirus-aid package, but a boost in federal nutrition benefits could go further.

The Covid-19 stimulus measure (Public Law 116-136) that President Donald Trump signed into law Friday appropriated an extra $450 million for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides free food to low-income households through local agencies such as food banks. Anti-hunger advocates say the support is welcome but does little to address issues like a decline in volunteers and surge in demand.

Congress could make a difference in the next coronavirus bill by bolstering benefits to participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, advocates say. While the latest economic-relief package allocated $15.5 billion in new SNAP funding, the law didn’t increase the benefits per recipient.

“For every meal distributed by a food bank, SNAP delivers nine,” said Andrew Cheyne, government affairs director at the California Association of Food Banks. “We’re really talking about taking pressure off the charitable food system.”

A volunteer separates cans of food for home delivery boxes at a Feeding Westchester food bank distribution center in Elmsford, N.Y.
Angus Mordant/Bloomberg

Other federal initiatives, including the National School Lunch Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also warrant expanded access, said Erin McAleer of anti-hunger organization Project Bread. The stimulus package set aside an additional $8.8 billion for child nutrition programs.

“Shorten the line at the food pantry by making sure more people are getting these federal nutrition programs,” McAleer, president of the Boston-based group, said in a telephone interview.

States hit hardest by the Covid-19 outbreak are also experiencing a rise in SNAP applications, as the number of Americans applying for unemployment insurance this month skyrocketed to about 3.3 million, according to the Labor Department.

Volunteer Shortage

The economic distress is driving Americans to food banks in droves, and staff say they don’t have enough hands to manage the influx.

Nonprofits that rely on business and university groups, as well as older adults, to volunteer are finding themselves without sufficient help as Americans shelter at home, Cheyne said in a telephone interview.

“Food banks are scrambling in real time to deal with a significant drop in volunteers—and even staff,” he said.

A number of food pantries have been forced to close their doors to the public. City Harvest in New York City typically runs “400 emergency food programs across the five boroughs,” but 80 have shut down during the outbreak, said Jerome Nathaniel, the nonprofit’s policy and government relations associate director.

The pandemic is stretching the “razor-thin budgets” of organizations that are “on a normal day, struggling to provide the food resources that community members need,” said Nick Buess, mobilization and policy associate director at Food Bank For New York City.

Checks in the Mail?

Food bank operators also worry that the latest congressional assistance won’t arrive soon enough to make a difference.

“The question is going to be when those checks start coming,” said Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of Louisiana’s Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana.

“Our biggest need is food,” she said in a telephone interview.

The Agriculture Department is currently working to develop and issue guidance on the funding and will allocate accordingly as soon as possible, a department spokesperson said in a statement.

Still other food banks, like City Harvest, won’t ever get the federal money because they don’t use the Emergency Food Assistance Program, Nathaniel said.

Organizations are solving problems on their own for now, McAleer said, developing drive-by and curbside pick-up systems—but they’re asking for more government support.

“The supply chain is really, really strong,” she said, “but where we need to be focused on is how can people access the food that’s already available.”

(Updates with Agriculture Department response in 16th paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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