Senate Republicans’ coronavirus relief proposal came under attack from a coalition of hunger advocates Tuesday for not extending funding for food assistance programs, despite rising demand during the pandemic.
But Republicans’ Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act (the Heals Act) does not expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, nor does it extend the Pandemic EBT program, a debit-card benefit for households with children who have temporarily lost access to free or reduced-price school meals. The Pandemic EBT program expired at the end of June.
“It is deeply disappointing that it failed to include a SNAP benefit increase or an extension to Pandemic EBT,” said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength, a hunger charity. “We know that childhood food insecurity is soaring to levels we’ve never seen.”
In a statement, a coalition of hunger groups called on Congress not to adjourn without strengthening SNAP and extending Pandemic EBT.
These programs are critical in providing relief to hungry children and their families at a time when other meal options have become scarce or more challenging, anti-hunger advocates say. Many schools are likely to reopen with virtual learning or a combination of virtual and in-person learning, making meal service inaccessible. These programs also take pressure off the nation’s food banks, many of which report shortages.
“This bill is entirely divorced from the reality of the crisis this country is facing,” said Sarah Reinhardt, the lead food-systems and health analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program.
Davis said the omission is “penny-wise, pound-foolish. It’s one of the smartest investments of federal funds our Congress could make.” Food insecurity has long-term effects on children’s physical health and growth, she said, negatively affecting educational outcomes, the likelihood of graduating from high school and even lifetime earnings.
Nearly 1 in 3 low-income families report having experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days, according to the Hamilton Project. That rate is even higher for black, Latino and immigrant households, with nearly 4 in 10 black and Hispanic households with children now struggling to feed their families. Many households are seeking food assistance for the first time.
“Given the national conversation about institutional racism and inequality, the decision is baffling,” said Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research and Action Center advocacy group. “It’s hard to think of a program that has SNAP’s virtuous cycle of feeding people. That money turns over in the local economy quickly and creates more jobs, and ultimately if people have steady jobs, they aren’t hungry.”
Although the Senate GOP proposal offers no new funds for SNAP and Pandemic EBT, it does double the tax deduction for business meals, known as the “three-martini-lunch deduction,” increasing the reimbursement from 50 percent to 100 percent of meals.
Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, said the pandemic has caused a dramatic uptick in the number of adults who say they cannot feed the children in their household. She said the consequences of food insecurity vary depending on a child’s age.
“A 7-year-old missing two meals is alarming,” she said. “But a 1- or 2-year-old missing two meals has long-term consequences for health and development. They really need steady, consistent access to nutrition.”
The Pandemic EBT program was not just about alleviating hunger, Dean said. Many school districts require families to visit meal sites for pickup, which puts parents and their children at risk of infection from the virus. With Pandemic EBT, families can order food online and avoid in-person pickup. Hunger advocates are also worried that with the move to remote learning, many school cafeterias may stop offering meals altogether.