WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 public health and economic crisis is bigger than any other we’ve seen in our lifetimes — while the pandemic has forced the U.S. economy into crisis, millions of Americans are struggling with food insecurity, unemployment, and falling behind on housing payments. Hunger has increased throughout the pandemic, with as many as 30 million adults and 12 million children living in a household where they may not always get enough to eat.
Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated longstanding disparities in food insecurity. Black and Latino adults are more than twice as likely as white adults to report that their households did not get enough to eat.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Biden-Harris administration are committed to ensuring that all struggling families can get the nutritious food they need.
Supporting Struggling Families through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
In good times and tough times, USDA’s nutrition assistance programs are among the most far-reaching, powerful tools available to ensure that all Americans, regardless of race, ethnicity, or background, have access to healthy, affordable food. USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides low-income Americans with access to healthy groceries. Approximately 43 million Americans rely on this program to feed themselves and their families. USDA and the Biden-Harris administration are working to strengthen this vital program by:
- Increasing SNAP benefits by 15%. Investments in nutrition assistance can have a powerful stimulative impact. A recent USDA study found that in a slow economy, one billion dollars in additional SNAP benefits would lead to an increase of $1.54 billion in the gross domestic product. In December, Congress provided a 15% increase in SNAP benefits from January through June 2021, which is providing about $28 per person per month to families in need. Of the over $7.0 billion investment, two-thirds is going to families with children, and nearly 40% is supporting the poorest households, with incomes less than half of the federal poverty level. As part of the American Rescue Plan, President Biden called on Congress to extend the increase in SNAP benefits through September. Extending this policy will helps thousands of people in need in each state, while providing millions of additional dollars to buy food in local communities.
- Benefits by State (PDF, 469 KB)
- Increasing access to online purchasing: Online grocery shopping has become a vital resources of increasing food Access, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, and in support of social distancing guidance, USDA redoubled its efforts to expand the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot beyond the original eight states. Currently, more than 1.5 million households in 46 states and D.C are using their SNAP benefits to purchase groceries online through participating retailers. Through the American Rescue Plan, the Biden-Harris administration supports an increased investment in technology to modernize electronic benefit transfer (EBT), support retailers, including farmers markets and direct-marketing farmers, and increase access to online purchasing for SNAP participants.
- Supporting states with additional administrative funding: Our state and local partners are on the front lines of providing nutrition assistance to struggling families, seniors, and people with disabilities. Throughout this pandemic, USDA has made full use of our authorities to support governors and state agencies administering our programs to ensure that benefits get to the kids and families that need it most. As part of the American Rescue Plan, the Biden-Harris administration supports providing an increase in SNAP administrative funds, without requiring states to match those funds, for fiscal years 2021 through 2023.
- Reducing inequalities in SNAP emergency benefits. Through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Congress authorized emergency increases to SNAP benefits to address the increase in hunger due to the pandemic. While this has provided about $29 billion in additional benefits for struggling Americans since the start of the pandemic, we are deeply concerned that approximately 20 million people in the lowest income households – who have the least ability to absorb the economic shocks brought about by COVID – have received no or very little emergency benefit increases provided by Congress last spring. About 40% of these households have children and 20% include someone who is elderly and 15% include someone who is disabled. USDA is working with the Department of Justice to review our legal authority to increase SNAP emergency allotments for those who need it most.
- Ensuring SNAP benefits support a healthy diet. Even before COVID, millions of Americans who rely on SNAP were struggling to buy and prepare healthy food with a benefit amount based on an outdated Thrifty Food Plan. As we look to find ways to strengthen our nutrition programs for the future, USDA has begun the process of updating the Thrifty Food Plan to better reflect the true cost of a healthy basic diet today.
Increasing Support to U.S. Territories
American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico receive a block grant in lieu of participation in SNAP. In December, Congress provided an additional $614 million to address increasing needs for nutrition assistance in these territories. President Biden called on Congress to provide these U.S. territories with an additional $1 billion in funding to support families hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Addressing Childhood Hunger Which Has Been Exacerbated by School Closures
Prior to the pandemic, nearly 22 million students relied on free or reduced-price school meals to get the nutrition they need to grow and learn. When schools closed in March 2020, school nutrition professionals across the country worked tirelessly to make sure these children had access to meals despite unprecedented challenges. USDA is working with our state partners to address these challenges by:
- Supporting schools with waivers and flexibilities to make school meals safe and accessible. In light of the unique circumstances, USDA is currently allowing schools to serve free meals to all students in need, waiving requirements that students are served in group settings at traditional mealtimes, and allowing parents and guardians to pick up meals. USDA, through new authority from Congress, is also offering additional administrative funds to states to support local program operators who are experiencing increased costs due to the public health emergency.
- Strengthening the Pandemic EBT program. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, USDA launched the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (Pandemic-EBT) program that provides food dollars to low-income families with kids, to replace the value of school meals missed when schools are closed. Under President Biden’s leadership, USDA has increased the daily benefit amount by about 16 percent, providing a family with three children up to $50 per month in additional benefits.Further, USDA has made it easier for states to establish a Pandemic-EBT program for this school year by issuing new P-EBT guidance to help states leverage their available data and resources to best serve children and families. Through improved guidance and extensive, one-on-one technical assistance, USDA is speeding up the process for state approvals. As of today, USDA has approved P-EBT plans for 22 states and territories this school year, which will provide over $10.0 billion to over 11.4 million children.
The Biden-Harris Administration is calling for additional support for this vital program through the American Rescue Plan which would extend Pandemic-EBT beyond September until the end of the pandemic, provide Pandemic-EBT benefits to families during the summer months in addition to the school year, and include children under 6 from the territories of American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico.
Investing in the Health of New Moms and Young Children
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, more commonly known as WIC, provides tailored nutrition assistance and breastfeeding support to new moms, infants and children for their first five years of life. Strengthening WIC, and introducing more eligible families to its benefits and services, has proven to drive better health for infants and support more nutritious diets and better health care for children, all while producing higher academic achievement for students.
Unfortunately, the share of eligible families participating in WIC has declined over the past decade; about half of eligible low-income individuals weren’t enrolled in 2017. The number of WIC participants continued falling at the end of 2019, and while it rebounded in some areas during the pandemic, it remained lower than the previous year even as the number of children living in households facing food hardship increased dramatically.
We believe that connecting more eligible women and young children to WIC is one of the tools to reduce stark racial disparities in maternal and child health. As part of the American Rescue Plan, President Biden has called on Congress to make a significant investment in WIC, and supports the current plan which includes:
- Reaching eligible mothers and children. USDA wants to undertake a robust national outreach campaign to ensure that eligible families know about WIC’s benefits and offer new easy ways for them to enroll.
- Supporting Innovation in WIC. USDA will support projects, through waivers and demonstration projects, to improve service delivery and increase participation and utilization of benefits.
- Increasing access to fruits and vegetables. The WIC Cash Value Voucher allows WIC participants to purchase fruits and vegetables at grocery stores and farmers markets. The administration supports a temporary increase in the amount provided for each participant, from the current amount ($9 for children and $11 for women) to $35 per person, per month.
Supporting Homeless Young Adults and Struggling Students
To provide additional support for individuals over 18 who are not usually eligible for USDA’s child nutrition programs, USDA is working to:
- Provide support for struggling college students. In December, Congress provided USDA with the flexibility to extend SNAP benefits to college students who would otherwise be ineligible if they are eligible to participate in work study programs or have an expected family contribution of zero in the current academic year. USDA is working with the Department of Education to inform students, as well as their colleges and universities, of this expanded eligibility.
- Feed young adults through emergency shelters. As part of the American Rescue Plan, the Biden-Harris administration supports allowing individuals under 25 experiencing homelessness to receive meals through emergency shelters participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
Supporting Food Banks
Food banks are one of USDA’s most important partners in responding to the rise in food insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. USDA is committed to doing much more to support our non-profit food bank network throughout the pandemic, and ensure that they have the resources to meet the growing demand for food assistance. Across all of our nutrition assistance programs, USDA is looking for ways to remove barriers and make it easier for qualified applicants to receive assistance through programs like SNAP, WIC and P-EBT, which should ease the demand currently shouldered by our food bank partners. To further support the states and food banks that make up the network for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), USDA is:
- Enhancing support for food purchases. Using funding provided by Congress, USDA has supported states with an additional $1.25 billion in funding to purchase foods through the Agricultural Research Service.
- Multiplying administrative support. To enable food banks to receive, store, and distribute the large increases of foods received by USDA, states have received a threefold increase in administrative support, $293 million, which can be utilized to support critical operational needs such as storage, transportation, and staffing.
- Boosting “bonus” buys. Each year, USDA makes food purchases that support agricultural markets while providing supplemental foods to those in need. Since the start of the pandemic, nearly $700 million in bonus foods have been delivered to TEFAP distribution sites.
Hungry Families Cannot Afford to Wait
USDA is moving quickly to deploy the emergency resources and new flexibilities Congress has provided in the end of year COVID relief package. We recognize that recovery from the pandemic will take time, effort, and great perseverance from all of us. We will stay focused each day on this critical mission because hungry families cannot afford to wait. USDA stands ready to work with Congress to deliver to American communities the urgent support and relief they need.
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