The food bank that serves the Washington area bought as much food in April as it would normally buy over three years as it scrambled to respond to an unprecedented level of need.
The economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, which has now left at least 20 million Americans unemployed, has pushed the nation’s network of food banks to the brink. Food pantries and other nonprofits are still seeing lines of cars with families waiting for hours to pick up food.
“There’s only so much we can do,” said Radha Muthiah, president and CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank. “The federal government has an incredibly important role to play here.”
Food banks and other anti-hunger advocates have been pleading with Congress to increase food stamp benefits to make it easier for households to buy groceries, arguing it’s a much more efficient way to get food to the hungry while cutting down on the stress and stigma of waiting in food lines. But the program has become so partisan the idea of expanding it has been almost a nonstarter, even as Washington has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on other forms of aid like unemployment insurance and stimulus checks.
The gridlock comes as data increasingly shows the country is experiencing some of the highest food insecurity numbers on record, even with all of the aid Congress has doled out in recent weeks.
In late April, a large national survey found that more than 17 percent of mothers reported their children under the age of 12 were not getting enough to eat because the family couldn’t afford enough food — a more than 400 percent increase from when the government last measured hunger rates in 2018.
When Stacy Dean, vice president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, saw the data on children, she initially thought it had to be wrong. “I was like, ‘Oh my god,’ how can policymakers not be taking action?” she said. “It’s mind-boggling that this isn’t viewed as a serious crisis.”
After Covid-19 started shutting down large swaths of the economy, including schools, which feed 30 million children each day, the anti-hunger community began lobbying to increase food stamp benefits by 15 percent until unemployment comes down — a move that would amount to about $25 more per recipient per month. The request has been repeatedly rejected by Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Food banks have received much more national attention than the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP, which is still known to many as food stamps — in part because the visuals have been so dramatic. Lines that span miles down the sides of roads, fill stadium and airport parking lots, crowds so large aerial footage is needed to capture the scale of the need, have been jarring for Americans not used to seeing such need laid out in plain sight.
But the fact is SNAP feeds far more people than food banks do: For every meal a food bank provides, SNAP is estimated to provide nine. The program covers families whose net income places them near or below the federal poverty line. The average benefit is $129 a month per person.
Food bank leaders say they can’t be expected to keep pace with surging demand for the many months, if not several years, it is going to take for the economy to recover.
“We’re really facing a food insecurity crisis unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the history of the charitable food system,” said Nicole Whalen, a spokesperson for the Vermont Foodbank, which has recently had residents wait in lines as long as five miles to pick up food from distribution sites.
“It’s just made it abundantly clear that we need additional support from the government,” she said. “This is a network already doing as much as we can. To actually have a really high impact, it’s SNAP, it’s not this.”
For food banks, Covid-19 has been a multipronged disaster. The increased need is itself unlike anything anyone has seen — already much worse than the depths of the Great Recession, which unfolded more slowly. And the current crisis has been even more complicated by the way the pandemic has shuttered food service businesses and disrupted food supply chains. As grocery retailers have struggled to keep up with a surge in demand, they have dramatically cut their usual food donations to food banks, which has left the organizations with less food at a time of their highest need.
The Capital Area Food Bank, for example, usually gets about 60 percent of its food from grocery store donations. With that pipeline largely dried up, it turned to the open market to buy up more staples like tuna, peanut butter and pasta. In April, it purchased 100 semi-truck loads of food to meet the need in the region — triple what it bought in all of 2019.
“Has this been like any other time?” said Muthiah. “This simple answer is no.”
Food stamps left behind
As Congress has devoted trillions in aid to respond to the pandemic, SNAP has played a relatively minor role.
In its first major aid package, passed in March, Congress gave states the ability to dole out emergency allotments to families, which amount to a temporary increase in benefits that can only last as long as the federal government remains in a public health emergency and the state you live in is under an emergency or disaster declaration. For the average household of three people, the bump is about $140 per month.
Congress also launched a new program called Pandemic EBT, which gives low-income families with children a one-time extra payment to make up for school meals they qualify for but likely missed while schools were closed this year. It amounts to $5.71 per child per school day. The benefit is loaded on the same debit-like EBT card the household uses for SNAP.
Anti-hunger advocates have praised both actions — though Pandemic EBT has been quite slow to roll out — but say the help is simply too small and too short-term to help millions of low-income households sustain themselves during the economic calamity.
There’s also been deep frustration over the fact that about 40 percent of households already receiving SNAP benefits didn’t see an emergency increase because they’re already receiving the maximum benefit each month — a technicality that means millions of the poorest households haven’t been getting the extra help.
Anti-hunger advocates believe the Agriculture Department has the legal authority to give more money to these families, but the department has argued it does not. Groups in California have sued USDA over the issue.
Republicans in Congress have remained deeply resistant to increasing benefits over the longer term, seeing it as an attempt by Democrats to permanently expand a program that some conservatives argue fuels a culture of dependency and dissuades work.
During the Great Recession, USDA mostly worked to expand access and increase benefits while unemployment was high. The stimulus bill Congress passed during the Obama administration increased SNAP benefits by about 16 percent, without much debate — a move aimed at helping people, but also at boosting the economy by infusing more money into grocery stores. The increase in benefits ran from 2009 to 2013.
USDA economists later determined the additional money helped drive increased spending and a reduction in food insecurity during the recession, which overall “contributed substantially to improvements for low-income households.”
Food stamps mired by politics
For much of the past half-century, food stamps enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Congress. The $60 billion program is reauthorized in the farm bill alongside programs that subsidize farmers, a marriage that has tied the interests of agriculture and low-income people together, with a unique mix of urban and rural support.
But this coalition has become increasingly frayed over the past decade.
In the wake of the Great Recession, the number of people on SNAP ballooned to more than 47 million, and the number did not come down as slowly as many conservatives thought it should have.
Many laid the blame on President Barack Obama for policies that made it easier for people who qualified to sign up for the program, though some of these efforts had begun during the Bush administration. In 2011, Newt Gingrich famously derided Obama as “the most successful food stamp president in American history.”
The conservative push to cut food stamps has created a more toxic political environment for the farm bill, normally reauthorized every five years. Democrats and Republicans fought bitterly for the better part of a year over the last bill, ultimately rejecting a House Republican attempt, led by then-Speaker Paul Ryan, to impose stricter work requirements and crack down on who is eligible for the SNAP program.
The Trump administration, for its part, has forged ahead with many of those same policies on its own, enraging Democrats and anti-hunger advocates. In May, USDA said it would appeal a court ruling that blocked its rule to impose stricter work requirements on certain food stamp recipients, a policy that would cut an estimated 700,000 people from the program.
“USDA has been extremely aggressive in expanding flexibilities to ensure Americans who have been impacted by the coronavirus continue to receive the food they need for themselves and their families,” a USDA spokesperson said at the time. “While we’re currently in a very challenging environment, we do not expect this to last forever. America’s best days are ahead and we must prepare our workforce to rejoin the economy when our nation reopens.”
In his February State of the Union address, President Donald Trump touted the fact that enrollment in the program was dropping: “Under the last administration, more than 10 million people were added to the food stamp rolls,” he said. “Under my administration, 7 million Americans have come off food stamps.”
The size of the program largely expands and contracts with the economy. In February, the last month for which national data is available, there were nearly 37 million people on the program. That number is expected to be dramatically higher today. Some large states, like Florida, reported a 20 percent increase in the number of people receiving benefits in April, according to figures tracked by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Michigan saw a 27 percent jump in the number of people getting benefits between February and April.
Large national surveys measuring the real-time impact of Covid-19 on households have found that food insecurity is much higher across the board than it was pre-pandemic. For all households, the rates have about doubled, according to an analysis of the COVID Impact Survey done by economists at Northwestern University. For households with children, they’ve nearly tripled. The data suggests 1 in 3 households with children is now reporting food insecurity, even with the aid Congress has already gotten out the door.
“It would be a great time to perk up their benefits,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist and director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, of food stamp recipients. “I just can’t believe they haven’t.”
But while Republicans in Congress have supported significant increases in the amount of unemployment benefits families can receive, along with stimulus checks to many Americans, they’ve continued to draw the line on proposals to raise SNAP benefits across the board.
A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not comment on the requests to increase SNAP benefits going forward. Senate Republicans have maintained that Washington needs to see how reopening goes at the state and local level before crafting another round of aid.
McConnell has said Congress will decide on whether another package is needed in the next month, telling reporters last week that any legislation would “be narrowly crafted, designed to help us where we are a month from now, not where we were three months ago.”
Conservative groups are already expressing opposition to any expansion of SNAP.
Jonathan Ingram, vice president of policy and research at the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative nonprofit that’s grown increasingly influential in recent years, called the push to increase SNAP benefits “a smokescreen to gut work requirements and expand welfare fraud,” noting that Democrats are also trying to block the administration from going forward with stricter work requirements for the program.
“This is nothing more than a sad attempt to use the Covid-19 pandemic as cover to push bad policy,” he said.