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Food and Housing Insecurity MeasuresFood Security

Q&A: Using SNAP to Address Food Insecurity during the COVID-19 Pandemic

September 10, 2020


As the nation continues to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Network has joined with public health law partners to produce a report that includes critical analyses and recommendations from 50 national experts convened to assess the U.S. policy response to the crisis to date. This new report, Assessing Legal Responses to COVID-19,  offers policy recommendations on 35 wide-ranging topics, including pandemic preparedness, access to health care, voter health and safety, protections for essential workers, food insecurity and immigration policy. Designed to advise leaders at the federal, state and local level, the report presents a timely examination of policy challenges and opportunities in light of the pandemic.

Many of the experts who authored chapters for the report will present their key findings at the 2020 Public Health Law Virtual Summit: COVID-19 Response and Recovery, September 16-17, and propose paths forward to more effective and equitable response and recovery efforts.

In this Q&A, Mathew Swinburne, associate director of the Network’s Eastern Region Office, discusses some of the key elements in the chapter he authored, Using SNAP to Address Food Insecurity during the COVID-19 Pandemic, for the Report.

Q: Can you summarize the ways in which the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is being leveraged to address food insecurity during the pandemic that you outline in your chapter?

In my chapter, I examine how SNAP policies are being changed and leveraged to help address the devasting food insecurity associated with the pandemic. In this analysis, I focus on three policy outcomes. First, I looked at policies that increase the value of the SNAP allotment. The SNAP allotment is the amount of money a household gets each month for food. This allotment is based on the number of people in a household and the household’s income. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) of 2020 authorized emergency allotments for the SNAP program. This allows states to increase the allotments provided to SNAP households. The increase in a household’s allotment cannot exceed the maximum monthly allotment for a household of its size.

Second, I examined policies that increased the number of people eligible for SNAP.   FFRCA waived the Able-Bodied Adult Without Dependents (ABAWD) requirement through one month after the termination of the federal public health emergency declaration for COVID-19. The ABAWD requirement mandates that individuals between the ages of 18-49, who can work and do not have dependents, meet special work requirements to receive more than three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period.  By waiving this requirement, the federal government is helping provide access to SNAP benefits because the downturn in the economy  makes it especially difficult to meet this requirement.

Third, the chapter explores measures that incorporate social distancing into the administration of SNAP. For example, FFCRA allows for the waiver of face-to-face interview requirements for SNAP certification and recertification. Also, the USDA is rapidly expanding the online SNAP pilot program that allows people to use their SNAP benefits with select online food retailers.

Q: What recommendations do you provide in your chapter for how federal and state governments can further leverage SNAP benefits to address food insecurity in response to public health emergencies in the future?

While key steps have been taken to improve the effectiveness of SNAP during the pandemic, more needs to be done to address the food insecurity created by COVID-19 and to prepare SNAP for future public health emergencies.  My eleven policy recommendations focus on three key outcomes: increasing the value of the SNAP allotment, increasing the number of people eligible for SNAP, and incorporating social distancing into the administration of the program. A few of these recommendations are highlighted below.

  • To increase the value of SNAP, Congress should temporarily increase the value of the maximum allotment to help the most vulnerable households who receive no assistance from the emergency allotment provision.
  • To increase the number of people eligible for SNAP, the federal and state governments should eliminate legislation that bans individuals with felony drug convictions from participating in the SNAP program.
  • To help vulnerable people access SNAP, the United States Department of Agriculture should rescind recent changes to the Able-Bodied Adult Without Dependents regulations and proposed changes to categorical eligibility regulations.  These modifications will deny millions access to SNAP.
  • To promote social distancing within the SNAP program, Congress should pass legislation making the online SNAP pilot a permanent program and require food retailers participating in the program to offer free food delivery under certain circumstances.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post do not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not represent the views of (and should not be attributed to) RWJF.