Federal Food Assistance During the Pandemic

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By Dr. Steve Suppan, Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy

You look for good news wherever you can find it. The heroic actions of health workers, school administrators, scientists, private food shelf operators and their volunteers. Federal Judge Beryl Howell, who ordered a temporary postponement of one of the Trump administration’s rules to cut the already meager individual and family benefits of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). We can only hope that other judges will postpone the implementation of other Trump administration rules and actions to cut nutritional assistance to the most vulnerable during and after the coronavirus pandemic. But on March 19, USDA appealed Judge Howell’s order that it was “arbitrary and capricious” to cut SNAP benefits during the pandemic.

On March 18, Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana wrote to President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to request temporary changes to a number of federal programs, including SNAP, to assist Louisiana in its battle with COVID-19. Governor Edwards requested that the SNAP waiver that allows purchase of hot food be extended to allow SNAP to be used to buy hot food at Louisiana restaurants and bolster local economies.

It’s difficult to know whether the White House will respond to Governor Edwards’ letter and other future direct appeals from governors and other officials regarding SNAP and other federal food assistance programs. Letters from 17 governors, 70 mayors and more than 75,000 other individuals and organizations to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, in opposition to the first Trump administration rule to cut SNAP benefits, were ignored.

Private food assistance across the country is operating in crisis mode. As businesses close and unemployment skyrockets, the past urgent need for more federal food assistance will increase exponentially. The Food Resource and Action Council (FRAC) has called on the USDA to suspend rules cutting SNAP benefits, increase SNAP benefits, use the disaster provisions of SNAP to feed children whose schools have been closed and waive eligibility requirements for child nutrition programs.

Members of Congress have responded to the FRAC call with the “Ensuring Emergency Food Security Act” introduced on March 11. This bill will join the many under urgent debate in Congress. On March 12, USDA released a four-page “SNAP Pandemic Planning Guidelines” for the state agencies that administer SNAP benefits. The Guidelines note, “Should the pandemic be severe or prolonged, there may be an increase in demand for SNAP benefits due to income lost due to illness or unemployment resulting from the pandemic.” On March 10, Secretary Perdue announced regulatory “flexibility” to apply provisions of the USDA summer meals program until June 30, 2020 to feed children whose schools have closed.

However, a White House plan to combat the coronavirus, dated March 15, anticipates at least an 18 month campaign to combat the pandemic. The 100-page plan is mostly medically oriented. However, clearly SNAP and other federal food assistance will have to be increased and extended far beyond June 30. But planning how and where to distribute the increase most effectively in the medium term will be more difficult because Secretary Purdue’s reorganization of USDA includes discontinuing the SNAP Policy Data Base and elimination of SNAP and other federal food assistance research by the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), according to a superb article by Chris Clayton. Restarting SNAP user and food retailer data collection would enable USDA to better target the increased SNAP benefits, particularly to where they are most deficient. Resuming ERS research into SNAP and other federal food assistance programs would inform both Congress and state administrators of federal food assistance about what was working and what was still needed.

Many areas of USDA research and data collection have been cut by what Senator Debby Stabenow called Secretary Perdue’s ideologically driven “demolition” of ERS and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA). But perhaps nowhere in USDA is the damage of those cuts to the short-term and medium-term response to COVID-19 impacts more apparent than in the damage to SNAP and other federal nutrition programs.

In IATP letters to the USDA criticizing two other proposed rules to cut SNAP benefits, IATP noted that USDA had ignored the research of ERS showing the benefits of SNAP that USDA refused to evaluate in the cost benefit analysis required by federal rulemaking. Elimination of many areas of ERS research and data collection, including for SNAP and other USDA nutritional programs have formed part of USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s long-term reorganization of USDA.

In IATP’s September 23, 2019 letter to USDA, we wrote about IATP’s programs to help Minnesota farmers meet the procurement requirements of schools and early child care centers to provide children with healthy foods. We noted that IATP urban and rural partners reported the health, educational and economic benefits of SNAP, which IATP’s programs supplement. We urged USDA to not further restrict SNAP for Minnesota’s poorest children by imposing new SNAP eligibility restrictions on their families.  Further SNAP cuts would undermine not just IATP’s food assistance initiatives, but thousands of others across the country that supplement federal food assistance.

One of the most important legal defects in the three USDA rules to cut SNAP benefits was the failure to consult substantively with the state, local and tribal governments that administer SNAP before releasing the rules. As Secretary Perdue decides how to increase and extend SNAP and other federal food assistance to meet the food security challenges of the next 18 months to two years, he must begin three processes: 1) consult with state, local and tribal government representatives to determine how best to administer increased and enhanced federal food security assistance during the COVID-19 National Emergency; 2) restart data collection and analysis in the SNAP Policy Data Base; 3) restore the ERS and NIFA research mission, staff and grants for federal nutrition research.

But as unemployment climbs and savings are exhausted during the next two or three months, the United States will face a national food security crisis, which could become a national security crisis, if USDA does not set aside its rule book and mobilize resources for an emergency beyond that of USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, which is available only to low income qualifiers. Secretary Perdue must ensure that even his emergency COVID-19 related measures are subject to public comment.

A former Department of Justice lawyer in charge of document security classification writes, “The White House reportedly ordered the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to conduct meetings concerning the COVID-19 virus in a classified setting. Given that disseminating timely and accurate information to the public is a key component in any response to a pandemic, classifying discussions about a pandemic unfolding in the United States appears to be unprecedented.”

Just as transparency in decision-making and clear and timely communication are vital to responding to a pandemic, so are those leadership characteristics required in a food security emergency. We must hope that Secretary Perdue succeeds in his new role as a de facto food and agriculture czar, in part by not classifying his decision-making under national security document rules. We, and particularly those who have criticized his past policies and actions, must help him succeed.

Originally posted here.

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