Statement attributable to Luis Guardia, President, Food Research & Action Center
WASHINGTON, January 28, 2021 – Hunger in this country has spiked dramatically as a result of the public health and economic fallout of COVID-19 but data released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that things would be far worse if not for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and child nutrition programs. We applaud President Biden for his recent actions to address hunger and Congress for taking steps last year in the right direction. Yet both the administration and Congress must make greater strides to ensure millions of struggling households get the nutrition they need and hasten economic recovery.
Continuing to bolster SNAP benefits throughout the health and economic crisis and beyond will be critical to individuals’ well-being and the nation’s economy. On average, nearly 43 million people participated in SNAP in September 2020, up from nearly 38 million in September 2019. The increase in participation during COVID-19 underscores that SNAP scales up quickly and significantly during times of crisis. Yet SNAP benefits were inadequate prior to the pandemic.
The amount of SNAP and Pandemic EBT benefits spent at food retailers during the pandemic so far has cushioned the economy. Research shows that each $1.00 in SNAP benefits during an economic downturn generates between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity, supporting the entire food chain, from farmers and producers to food retailers and employees. Such food benefits on EBT cards also free up other household resources to purchase non-food items that positively impact state sales tax revenues.
Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) provided nearly $10.7 billion in nutrition benefits from March 2020 through September 2020 to millions of families who lost access to free and reduced-price school meals when schools closed due to the pandemic. The administration and Congress need to build on this success by extending P-EBT to address spikes in child hunger during the summer and on weekends and school holidays as a permanent complement to the existing child nutrition programs.
Maintaining the flexibilities for school meals that are currently available, including being able to offer meals at no charge to all students, will continue to be critical for struggling families. Despite USDA’s nationwide waivers that allow meals to be served through the Summer Nutrition Programs in place of the traditional school meal programs, and the hard work of schools and communities across the country, lunch participation dropped by nearly half from September 2019 to 2020 (from 538 million school lunches in September 2019 to 290 million in 2020 through the Summer Nutrition Programs). Without the waivers, the drop would have been even more dramatic.
During the first seven months of COVID-19 (March–September 2020), the Child and Adult Food Care Program (CACFP) served 480 million fewer meals, a 41 percent decrease, compared to the same months in 2019. We urge the Biden administration to streamline CACFP program requirements, reduce paperwork, and maximize benefits and technology to reach more families with low incomes.
Nationally, WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) has had only modest gains in participation from the outset of COVID-19 in March to September 2020: from 6.2 million to 6.3 million participants. WIC needs continued flexibility and an outreach component to help people sign up for the program, as well as access WIC foods through online shopping options, and better technology to coordinate with the health care sector.
There exists a clear pathway for ending hunger in America and important reasons for doing so. Food insecurity is not just morally repugnant, it causes a range of profound harms. It also injures health, learning, productivity, employment, and equality of opportunity.
For 50 years, the Food Research & Action Center has been the leading national nonprofit organization working to eradicate poverty-related hunger and undernutrition in the United States. To learn more, visit FRAC.org and follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.