The surge in COVID-19 cases across Florida and the nation, coupled with the looming expiration of federal benefits programs, mean many families are worried about the future. Perhaps most immediate for some Floridians is the fear of food insecurity and the likelihood that they will not be able to provide their families with nutritious meals. All of us are questioning when this “storm will run out of rain,” The future lies in the hands of our representatives in Congress, who just returned to work this week.
In too many households, even pre-COVID, the cumulative cost of housing, childcare, food, transportation and healthcare didn’t leave room for savings or unexpected expenses. COVID has created extreme financial stress and missed meals, exacerbating these worsening circumstances and putting millions of families at risk. A study from Northwestern University indicates that, despite government aid that has kept unemployment figures steady, food insecurity has doubled, and rates of child hunger have risen even more. Another study from Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group showed that Floridians are experiencing 19.6 million weekly missing meals, approximately 2.7 million of which are a result of COVID-19.
We must think of our children and families, creating federal relief programs that will help them handle the prolonged financial strain of this unprecedented pandemic.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as “food stamps,” has historically been a social safety net for vulnerable households and remains an excellent solution as we seek to help families during COVID-19. Studies have shown that SNAP puts food on the table while also fueling the economy. Indeed, SNAP helps reduce food insecurity and malnutrition, increases employment and high school graduation rates.
For many years, SNAP has been an example of a program that both political parties have embraced, tackling national problems in an efficient way. Unfortunately, the current fractured political climate has dampened efforts to enhance SNAP. Simply put, partisanship has gotten in the way of helping our children.
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act is a recent example. This Act contains a number of key initiatives to help families, including enhancements to SNAP. Although the HEROES Act was passed by the House more than two months ago, it stalled when it got to the Senate. The Act contains a provision that would have increased the maximum benefit for each household while also suspending time limits that would negatively affect recipients’ benefits and overall eligibility. These enhancements would have been meaningful for the millions of families who are trying to make ends meet at a time when grocery costs are increasing significantly.
Like many programs, SNAP has evolved with the times, with many states, such as Florida, allowing families to make online grocery delivery purchases using SNAP dollars. This has helped families remain in quarantine; however, more must be done to give all families, including those who live in food deserts, access to this benefit.
To address this, the Expanding SNAP Options Act was introduced earlier this month by Illinois Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, both Illinois Democrats. If passed, this act would require all states to allow for online grocery purchases with SNAP dollars while also investing in the infrastructure that would increase participation from small grocers and farmers.
We must put aside our political differences and create both short- and long-term solutions to address food insecurity and malnutrition. These issues primarily affect children and disproportionately affect Black and brown communities, which has led to health disparities such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity and, most recently, higher rates of COVID-19.
With state and federal provisions set to expire in the near future, we must think of the families who continue to struggle and face an uncertain future as a result of COVID-19. Our lawmakers should use provisions outlined in the unpassed HEROES Act and the newly introduced Expanding SNAP Options Act as two strong and impactful policies that would have long-term implications for our families.
Linda Novick O’Keefe is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Common Threads, one of only two nonprofit agencies awarded SNAP-Ed multi-year grant awards, as an implementing agency, in more than one state.