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States seek food-stamp flexibility as pandemic limits options

COVID-19 is affecting where food stamp recipients can do their shopping

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is among those who have asked the USDA for flexibility with food stamps during the pandemic.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is among those who have asked the USDA for flexibility with food stamps during the pandemic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Most food stamp users can’t buy restaurant meals or hot or prepared foods with their benefits, but state officials have begun asking the Agriculture Department for authority to waive some federal restrictions on purchases as they try to provide more options to low-income people grappling with COVID-19.

Anti-hunger advocates say most requests are in line with past requests states make in times of disaster. 

For example, Gov. Roy Cooper, D-N.C., has requested authority from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to allow people enrolled in his state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to buy hot foods or prepared items at retail stores already approved to redeem other food stamp purchases.

Cooper also is seeking authority to run Disaster SNAP (DSNAP), which is possible if a  presidential disaster declaration triggers individual assistance. Under DSNAP, that assistance can include food benefits for people who wouldn’t normally qualify, but have lost income, suffered injuries or otherwise been affected by disaster.

DSNAP also allows states to raise monthly benefits for current food stamp recipients to the maximum allowed for households based on their size.

While most states seem to be considering traditional waivers, Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, is requesting authority to let SNAP users in his state buy take-out food at restaurants and drive-thrus. Like other governors, Abbott has banned dine-in service at restaurants while there is the threat of the coronavirus spreading wherever there’s a gathering of people.

“As we continue in our efforts to combat COVID-19, the state must do everything it can to make life more manageable for citizens and ensure that Texans can provide meals for their families,” Abbott said in a statement Tuesday. “This waiver will go a long way in doing just that. I urge the federal government to quickly approve this waiver, giving Texans another food option during this public health emergency.”

Under current federal SNAP rules, there are limited exceptions in some states that allow elderly, disabled and homeless food stamp users to purchase restaurant meals. The rationale for these exceptions is that older people and those with disabilities may find it difficult to prepare meals and the homeless have no place to make meals. Restaurants that participate in these programs are under contract to charge lower meal prices to SNAP customers.  

A spokesperson said in an email that the Food and Nutrition Service is “committed to providing all program flexibilities and contingencies available under the law. FNS has been receiving and reviewing requests from states on a continual basis.” The spokesperson called the situation unprecedented and said: “We are working quickly and closely with states to best serve program participants.”

Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said Abbott’s request is novel but she doesn’t know how practical it will be if approved.

“The SNAP benefit is still a very basic, bare-bones benefit. The average benefit per meal per person is still $1.40. Meals at restaurants would be very unaffordable based on the benefit,” Dean said.

She said some governors are making use of provisions in recent coronavirus response legislation (PL 116-127) to request authority from the USDA for emergency increases in monthly benefits to give families more purchasing power. The Food and Nutrition Service website shows waiver approvals for Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The service posts its approved requests here.

Surge in applications expected

Dean said more than 40 states have received authority for flexibility in managing SNAP cases as employees operate remotely because offices are closing to stem the pandemic. The District of Columbia and the U.S. territories of Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands also have flexibility for their programs.

Officials expect a surge in SNAP applications even though many have closed offices to reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 infections. Dean said the steep increase in unemployment insurance claims to 3.28 million for the week ending March 21 is an indicator of the uptick to come in SNAP applications. The latest unemployment insurance report exceeds the weekly record of 695,000 set in October 1982 and the 665,000 peak in March 2009 during the Great Recession.

In California, Jessica Bartholow said her organization, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, is asking the state to seek a waiver to allow hot meals or prepared food purchases under SNAP.

“We use that waiver a lot during disasters. Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of opportunities to exercise that,” Bartholow said.  

The waiver allows SNAP participants to buy things like a rotisserie chicken with their benefits, a popular item with the elderly.

Bartholow also said the waiver would expand what people can buy at convenience stores already approved to redeem SNAP benefits. The participating stores are required to carry certain categories of food in order to participate.

“There’s a lot of cynicism and criticism about the participation of convenience stores in the SNAP program. For so many people who live in food deserts, this is the only source of food for right now,” Bartholow said.

She said her center, an anti-hunger advocacy organization, also is looking at a pilot project approved in five states that allows SNAP participants to order food online. Inc., Walmart Inc. and Safeway Inc. are the food retailers participating.

Bartholow said the 2018 farm bill allows for the project’s expansion, but there are still a number of questions to be resolved. For example, she said, it is unclear who would be responsible for lost, stolen or damaged orders. 

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