July 17, 2020

Even as we struggle with the health and economic impacts of COVID-19, our nation could face additional challenges from hurricanes that typically arise in the Atlantic Ocean during late summer and early fall. Federal action now to boost SNAP benefits and to allow for administrative flexibilities can address hardships due to potential hurricanes as well as those hardships caused by COVID-19.

For many years, Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) waivers have provided important relief to households and communities hard hit by disasters. For example, in response to 2017 Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (USDA-FNS) provided SNAP replacement benefits to more than 2.4 million households.

The federal government should use all of the tools in the disaster recovery toolbox to address the human and economic hardship presented by both COVID-19 and natural disasters. Three actions in particular would improve SNAP’s effectiveness as a crisis responder.

First, USDA should adapt D-SNAP to assist disaster victims during the pandemic.

  • For SNAP participants residing in zip code areas impacted by a hurricane or other disaster, states and their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) processors, with approval from USDA, can automatically put replacement and supplemental benefits onto existing EBT cards efficiently and effectively.
  • While providing D-SNAP for households not already participating in SNAP traditionally has entailed signing them up at a congregate site, D-SNAP operations can be adapted to respect social distancing. For example, Florida has an online preregistration feature that allows residents to input eligibility information into the system as a storm approaches. In both 2017 and 2018, USDA permitted Florida to conduct interviews for D-SNAP over the telephone rather than in-person.

Second, USDA should consider ways to adapt D-SNAP practices and other flexibilities to address hardship caused by COVID-19. Several states, including Florida, North Carolina, and Michigan, have requested, but not received, authority to use D-SNAP to help respond to COVID-19. USDA also should explore ways to increase food access points for SNAP participants during the pandemic for SNAP purchases of hot prepared foods and restaurant meals.

Finally, and most importantly, Congress and the Trump administration should act now to boost SNAP benefits to mitigate the depth and duration of the food hardship and economic disruption caused by COVID-19. Each $1 of SNAP benefits during a downturn generates between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity. Down payments on SNAP relief provided under the Families First Act don’t help all SNAP participants, and only help them in the short term.

In 2009, Congress and the Obama administration provided a 13.6 percent increase in SNAP maximum benefits that continued for several years. As Healthy Eating Research (HER), a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, explains, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) SNAP boost “was associated with: increased food expenditures, mitigated declines in calorie intake, improved food security, and reduced Medicaid cost growth, especially for people with chronic illnesses with high sensitivity to food insecurity.” According to USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), “the effects of SNAP spending per dollar spent on local employment during the recession were larger than the effects per dollar spent of other government transfer payments combined.”

Boosting maximum and minimum SNAP benefits during the current downturn would help millions of Americans struggling with high food prices and diminished wages, and would jump start our nation’s economic recovery.

Join FRAC in urging Congress and the White House to 1) boost the SNAP maximum by 15 percent; 2) increase the SNAP minimum monthly benefit from $16 to $30; and 3) suspend all SNAP rules changes that would terminate or weaken SNAP benefits. Such measures should continue until there is sufficient economic economy recovery.