Anti-hunger advocates praise Congress for nutrition assistance, but warn more will be needed
Food scarcity – already a problem in the U.S. in pre-pandemic times – is on the rise. We’ve all seen the miles-long lines of cars waiting to receive assistance at food banks. This holiday season, numerous major media outlets have published or aired stories about Americans going hungry, including all of the major TV networks.
New data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey for Nov. 25 to Dec. 7 show that 27.4 million adults – 13 percent of all adult Americans – report that they sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the past seven days. That’s 1.6 million more than in the last data release and 5 million more than in late August.
In households with children, the proportions reporting they haven’t had enough to eat are higher – more than 17 percent in that recent Household Pulse survey. Bread for the World estimates that as many as 50 million people, or almost 1 in 6 in the U.S., are at risk of experiencing hunger this winter. Eleven million children currently live in a household where the children themselves are not getting enough to eat. And we know people of color are disproportionately harmed – according to Census Bureau data, 30 percent of Black and Latinx families with children are struggling to put food on the table.
All of which explains why it was heartening news when Congress on Monday, December 21 voted on a COVID-19 relief package that includes $26 billion for nutrition assistance and agriculture and rural programs. The measure has not been signed into law yet; as of this writing no one knows whether President Trump will sign the legislation.
Assuming, one way or another, it does become law, half of the $26 billion, $13 billion, is aimed at providing nutrition assistance for food-insecure Americans. The other $13 billion goes to agriculture assistance and programs, with a relatively small amount, $300 million, going to assist the fishing industry.
So, what kind of nutrition aid is in the package, and why are groups and advocates that work on fighting hunger happy?
The most important part of the aid is a 15 percent increase in monthly maximum SNAP benefits for the next six months, starting Jan. 1, for the roughly 43 million Americans receiving SNAP. Eligibility for college students, many struggling during the pandemic due to job loss and closed campus cafeterias, has been expanded. And older Americans will see an increase of $175 million in nutrition aid, including $7 million for tribal programs.
Another important component of the nutrition assistance passed by Congress will help food banks that have been struggling to keep up with ferocious demand. Congress allocated $400 million for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, one of the largest sources of food for food banks. Feeding America, which has a network of 200 food banks, said the timing of the aid is critical.
“This funding is absolutely necessary as food banks prepare for a scheduled 50 percent reduction in food received from the government while at the same time, they face an average 60 percent increase in demand,” the group said in a statement.
According to the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), the nutrition assistance component of the sweeping relief package also:
- Expands the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program for children under six-years-old, a program offering a lifeline that fills nutrition needs when child care is closed due to COVID-19 and gives states some additional flexibilities to support the distribution of P-EBT benefits to school-age children.
- Provides emergency funding to support the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) child care providers and sponsors services and the School Nutrition Programs by replacing 55 percent of the total reimbursement funding lost for each claiming month from April 2020 to June 2020 plus half of March 2020.
- Establishes a task force to support online delivery systems for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
- Provides additional funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program.
- Provides $614 million in nutrition grants to Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
While anti-hunger advocates were united in their praise of the nutrition assistance passed by Congress, they also warned that more will have to be done in the new year. “The food purchase program in the legislation will help, but as we anticipate a gap of 8 million meals between food bank supply and demand, we are eager to continue working with Congress and USDA on implementation of the funding provided to support producers impacted by COVID-19 and other measures to ensure there is enough food on hand to help people in need,” Feeding America said in their statement.
Luis Guardia, FRAC’s President, called the aid “another step in the right direction, but it still falls short of the longer-term comprehensive relief needed to limit the depth and duration of the health and economic crisis.”
And Bread for the World, while also praising the legislation, said it would like to see Congress expand its attention abroad and provide increased relief for anti-hunger efforts worldwide.
“Right now, the world is facing the greatest crisis of our lifetime,” said Rev. Eugene Cho, President and CEO of Bread for the World. “On behalf of our network of local churches, denominations, and other faith-based and anti-hunger organizations, I urge Congress to provide immediate assistance to address this global health and hunger crisis.