N.C. Dems want more federal cash to combat hunger during pandemic

Rep. Alma Adams

More than 1 million North Carolinians would benefit from increased SNAP benefits

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) and other House Democrats are urging congressional leaders to prioritize food insecurity in the next round of coronavirus legislation.

She and more than 100 other lawmakers sent a letter Tuesday asking Democratic and Republican leaders of the U.S. House and Senate to boost the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit by 15% — a request Republicans rejected in the $2 trillion coronavirus response packaged signed into law last month.

The issue is of special concern in North Carolina, where the prevalence of food insecurity is higher than the national average, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 1.5 million North Carolinians — or one in seven residents — struggle with hunger, according to Feeding America, a national hunger-relief organization.

“SNAP is one of our country’s most vital social safety nets, and it will continue to play a critical role in reducing hunger, malnutrition and poverty throughout the COVID-19 health crisis,” House lawmakers wrote.

Rep. David Price

North Carolina Rep. David Price, a Democrat, agreed. “The COVID-19 crisis is putting a financial strain on individuals and families, making it harder for many to put food on the table,” he said in a statement. “As North Carolina’s only appropriator, I’ve long advocated for nutrition programs and I strongly support … additional funding for food security programs in the next package to ensure no family falls through the cracks.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has voiced support for the effort, telling reporters last week that Democrats “did not get all that we wanted” for food and nutrition programs. “We have more needs, so we need more resources to feed the hungry.”

She called the absence of increased SNAP benefits in the last coronavirus package a “disappointment” at a news conference last month. “We were asking for a 15% increase in food stamps at this very fragile time for many families, [but] they wouldn’t do that in this bill.”

During the 2009 recession, Congress boosted the maximum benefit to $1.74 per person per meal, and Congress “must make a similar investment” now, Democratic lawmakers wrote.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not respond to requests for comment.

Pelosi has outlined a fourth “recovery” package that she said would focus on immediate needs, such as assistance for ailing small businesses, expanded insurance for people who have lost their jobs, and more money for individuals and families in the form of direct payments, according to Politico.

Price said at a virtual town hall meeting on Tuesday that expanding SNAP benefits should be a priority in the next coronavirus response bill. “It’s a struggle,” he said. “Families are trying to put food on the table. It gets harder as this crisis goes on.”

Such a bill could come up for a vote when the House is slated to reconvene later this month. It would build on three other coronavirus response packages, including the economic stimulus package signed into law late last month. 

A previous bill, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, includes billions of dollars for nutritional assistance for children and families and authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ease some restrictions, according to the agency.

“USDA is committed to maximizing our services and flexibilities to ensure children and others who need food can get it during this Coronavirus epidemic,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “This is a challenging time for many Americans.”

The USDA, the agency noted, has temporarily lifted requirements that meals be served in group settings and at certain times of day; that children appear with parents to receive benefits; and that local operators meet certain “meal pattern” rules, for example.

Price also noted that a “pandemic-SNAP” program allows families whose children would have received free or reduced-price meals to qualify for SNAP.

Soaring unemployment 

In 2019, SNAP served 38 million Americans, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — a number likely to rise in the wake of soaring unemployment. Of those, 1.3 million live in North Carolina — about 12% of the state’s population.

SNAP benefits are modest — averaging about $1.40 per person per meal, the government’s estimate of the amount needed for a sparse but nutritionally adequate diet. Studies show that many households lack money to buy food by the end of the month, according to CBPP.

In addition to increasing SNAP funding by 15%, House Democrats also want to increase the monthly minimum SNAP benefit from $16 to $30 and stop the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken food benefits.

In December, the Trump administration finalized a rule that would tighten food stamp eligibility requirements by limiting states’ ability to grant waivers that extend benefits in areas with high unemployment. The administration estimates that about 688,000 people nationwide will lose access to nutrition benefits under the new regulation.

The rule was slated to take effect on April 1, but it was recently blocked by a federal judge.

Two other pending rules would also dramatically reduce the number of people receiving food stamp benefits, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute.

“All three rules, at the very least, should be stayed until the economy shows significant improvement,” the lawmakers wrote.

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