Health advocates push for expanded nutrition assistance to ease record food insecurity, stimulate economy

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty /  Standart
Source: Getty / Standart

Related tags food insecurity SNAP coronavirus

As the ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to drive up food prices alongside unemployment, food insecurity in the US is reaching new heights that far exceed those experienced during and since the Great Recession – spurring calls for increased government aid to help those in need pay for groceries.

Public health advocates with the Hamilton Project, Brookings Institution, Food Research & Action Center and others are calling on legislators to increase by 15% the maximum benefits provided by the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps those in need buy food, and extend and expand the Pandemic EBT program, which gives families that qualify for free and reduced school meals a voucher to purchase groceries for the same amount as the value of the school meals missed due to COVID-19 related closures during the 2019-20 academic year.

They argue that expanding nutrition assistance through temporary, targeted payments not only helps ease hardship from food insecurity, but historical data suggests boosting SNAP benefits during economic downturns can help stimulate the economy at a significantly higher rate than the initial investment.

The extent of food insecurity in America

The depth of food insecurity in America today far exceeds that of recent history – underscoring the need for relief through what some may consider extreme action, according to research released late last month by the Hamilton Project and Brookings Institute.

The study​, which looked at the extent of food insecurity in the US since the coronavirus outbreak and the impact of the Pandemic- EBT program, found nearly one-third of US households with children reported suffering food insecurity in 2020 – a dramatic increase from the nearly one in five households that suffered in 2008 at the lowest point of the Great Recession. Similarly, more than twice as many households with children reported “sometimes or often not having enough to eat in 2020 as in either 2018 or 2008,”​ according to the report.

This increase can be attributed in part to the GDP dropping a staggering 9.5% from April through June following the declaration of the pandemic, which led a near overnight shutdown of local economies to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

At the same time, the average price of groceries has steadily climbed since the coronavirus outbreak – most recently rising 0.7% in June for a 5.6% increase over the past year, according to the Consumer Price Index from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meat, poultry and fish retail price hikes led the way at 12.8% compared to a year ago with dairy prices up 5.1% and fresh vegetables prices up 4.9% in the same period.

In response, the research reveals many families grappling with food insecurity who are unable to stretch their funds as far have reached out to community resources and safety net programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which saw caseloads increase 17% from February to May in the 42 states with data available as of July 22..

“In addition, more people are using food pantries or receiving other forms of direct food assistance from a community or religious organization than at any point since at least 2014,”​ the report notes.

Expanding Pandemic EBT reduces risk of hardship

As the coronavirus continues to cripple the economy and threatens many schools’ ability to re-open for in-person classes in the fall, researchers with The Hamilton Project and Brookings urge Congress to expand the Pandemic EBT program to ensure that qualified children will receive funds for meals even if schools are closed.

For support, they point to their research, which found the program reduced food hardship faced by children by 30% in the week following disbursement.

This is based on a “differences-in-differences analysis”​ that allowed the researchers to compare outcomes for households that are nearly identical except for whether their states have paid out Pandemic EBT. This was then compared to data from the weekly US Census Bureau Pulse Survey that asked respondents about their household’s economic, health, education and food security, which allowed the researchers to capture changes over time with high frequency.

SNAP’s positive history underpins argument for increase

The positive impact of the Pandemic EBT program also reflects the effect of previous temporary increases in the maximum SNAP benefits during the Great Recession and subsequently reinforces public health advocates calls to increase that aid again.

While Congress has taken several steps to increase access to SNAP aid since the pandemic began, roughly 40% of the households already receiving SNAP have not seen a change in their benefits because they already hit the upper most limit, Ellen Teller, director of government affairs at the Food Research & Action Center recently told attendees at the Consumer Federation of America’s virtual 43rd​ Food Policy Conference

She explained that increasing the maximum SNAP benefit by 15% would allow every household receiving the benefits to see a boost, which would help close the increasing gap between what they can afford the rising price of food. In addition, she argued, the minimum benefit should be increased from $16 a month to $30 a month in order to help more older US adults avoid financial insecurity.

The increase not only would help families in need, it also would help the broader community in which they live, Teller argued.

“Over 98% of SNAP benefits are used up in the month they are received,”​ which means there is an “infusion”​ of funds into the community that further stimulates the economy, she said. “For ever $1 the feds put in [to the SNAP program], local economies see between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity”​ in the form of more workers need to stock shelves, more trucks needed to transport goods, and so on.

“It has a ripple effect in the communities and all across the country,”​ she said.

While the House side of Congress has already passed legislation to temporarily increase SNAP benefits, the economic relief packaged proposed late last month by Senate republicans did not – revealing that advocates may still have a long road ahead of them to see this request fulfilled by legislators.

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