‘Just insane’: As pandemic rages and hunger soars, Trump USDA under fire for blocking access to food benefits

"It looks like people will lose their benefits."

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SOURCECommon Dreams
Image Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

With hunger on the rise across the nation as the pandemic-induced economic crisis continues, local officials and policy analysts are warning that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is leaving millions of Americans vulnerable to losing crucial food benefits by refusing to extend waivers allowing states to loosen eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Despite urgent demands from states to extend the federal waivers—which were authorized in March by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act—the USDA said late last month that it is “working with states to return to a new normal” even as Covid-19 cases spike and joblessness remains at a historic high. The USDA said it will not extend the waivers beyond the end of August.

“The Agriculture Department is restricting key flexibility in SNAP that the president and Congress gave states in the Families First Act of March to help them manage an applications influx due to Covid-19 and the recession—saying states must return to ‘normal operations,’ even though current circumstances are anything but normal,” Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote in a blog post Monday.

Bolen noted that the national SNAP caseload jumped by six million between February and May as Covid-19 spread across the U.S., prompting mass economic shutdowns and widespread job losses.

“Policymakers gave USDA the tools to respond to the extraordinary circumstances that state SNAP agencies and millions of low-income households face,” Bolen added. “Now, USDA needs to continue giving states the flexibility to respond to the unprecedented increase in need until Covid-19 is under control and agency operations have returned to something like normal.”

Erin McAleer, president of anti-hunger advocacy group Project Bread, urged USDA in a tweet Monday to extend the waivers given that the “hunger crisis is far from over and SNAP is critical in the response.”

As the Washington Post reported late last month, the USDA has denied requests from the governments of Washington, D.C. and Maryland to extend the waivers, which suspended rules requiring individuals and families receiving SNAP benefits to periodically recertify their incomes to determine whether they are still eligible.

“When the coronavirus pandemic began, the USDA halted those visits and promised that everyone who gets federal funding to pay for groceries would keep receiving it during the crisis without needing to recertify,” the Post reported. “With that reprieve ending, state governments are scrambling to figure out how to make sure needy families keep getting grocery money during an economic downturn, without crowding them into waiting rooms where they could catch the virus.”

Dora Taylor-Lowe, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C. Department of Human Services, told the Post that USDA’s refusal to extend the waivers amid surging hunger is “a big problem.”

“This is not the time for people who are already vulnerable to lose their benefits. It’s just insane,” said Taylor-Lowe. “We thought they would just keep waiving the requirement until the end of the pandemic, but they’ve denied our requests for that. It looks like people will lose their benefits.”

Late last month, Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said in a statement that with the USDA waivers expiring at the end of August, her department is sending SNAP recipients notices informing them that they must reapply to continue receiving benefits.

“We appreciate that the process of re-certification will be a hardship for recipients who may be hard to locate or who may have barriers to producing their applications without technology and with county and tribal offices still partially closed,” said Harpstead. “We are sending notices now to make sure that people who are entitled to SNAP and [Minnesota Family Investment Program] benefits understand what they need to do to continue receiving them so they will not lose these vital supports.”

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