To hand someone a box of groceries that includes food provided by the federal government, food banks are required to collect information — typically, his or her name, address, household size and income, which has to be below a threshold set by each state.
This process can take several minutes for each recipient and has created a dangerous speed bump at food banks and pantries as they experience a sudden and dramatic increase in demand.
At least four states have attempted to temporarily suspend this intake process by asking the USDA to allow them to distribute food using disaster protocols, as often happens following a hurricane or other natural occurrence. The department initially pushed back on these requests, according to food bank officials in states that proposed them. Under pressure — including from a barrage of bipartisan pleas from Pennsylvania — USDA officials on Friday approved disaster plans for Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Virginia that will ease the process for them for about a month.
It is considering a plan submitted on Saturday by Ohio, and more states are expected to submit their own plans. The department is refusing, however, to lift the rules in states that have not formally submitted requests.
Some leaders of food bank associations, who are already overwhelmed, have called on the department to ease the burden for all states because of the national emergency declaration — or at least streamline its process to save time. What had been manageable in normal times, they said, is both time-consuming and risky now.
“It just, it defies logic,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, the executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. “We are addressing unprecedented circumstances . . . . This should be a national declaration. I can’t believe that I’m wasting time, bureaucrats are wasting time, my colleagues are wasting time, trying to plead our cases.”
In a statement Tuesday, the USDA said its Food and Nutrition Service has been “receiving and reviewing requests on an ongoing basis and is working closely with states to maximize available assistance.”
The USDA said in that statement that income eligibility requirements “cannot be waived.” But under the national emergency declared by President Trump on March 13, the department gained the authority to approve state requests for “disaster household distribution” of food — a program that does not require the same level of documentation required under normal circumstances. In evaluating disaster distribution requests, USDA officials have to make sure there is enough food in storage to meet the expected demand and that the supply can be replenished.
In the past few weeks, businesses across the country have closed and laid off workers, prompting millions to apply for unemployment benefits. As public school systems shuttered, students who rely on receiving meals there were in many cases left in the lurch. Many churches, schools and community organizations that had once distributed food were also forced to close. All of that has led to greater demand at food banks and pantries.
Even as donations of money have increased, many orders placed by food banks were canceled as suppliers struggled to keep up with panic-buying. Donations of food from grocery stores often decreased, making many food banks even more reliant on federal supplies.
Feeding America, a nonprofit network of food banks, estimates an additional $1.4 billion in resources will be needed over the next six months to provide enough food for the increasing number of Americans struggling with hunger, a 30 percent increase to the regular operating costs of its 200 members.
The number of volunteers available to help has also fallen, especially as retirees or those with health conditions were urged to stay at home for their own safety. In Ohio and Louisiana, National Guard members have been dispatched to help assemble boxes of food and distribute them. Pennsylvania has set up large central packing plant for food banks at an expo center in Harrisburg.
The federal requirement that food bank staff gather information from recipients added to the bottleneck caused by the sheer number of those needing food — and increased the time of close interactions, organizers said.
“We don’t have PPE,” said Hamler-Fugitt, referring to personal protective equipment. “I don’t have masks and gloves out there in my network, because we want to make sure that our health professionals have that.”
Several state departments of agriculture waived their own requirements that recipients sign the paperwork, so that it did not need to be passed between them and food bank staff. But that did not speed the process up significantly.
When the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank held its first drive-through distribution about 10 days ago, cars were lined up for more than a mile as volunteers and staffers approached the passenger-side windows in the rain and tried to get information from the drivers, a process that took about four to five minutes per car, said Jane Clements-Smith, the executive director of Feeding Pennsylvania.
“At one point it was like: Well, forget it. This is almost too hard to use. We’ve got to find a way around this,” Clements-Smith said.
These officials appealed to their state departments of agriculture, which then made the formal request to the USDA. In Ohio, Hamler-Fugitt said that it took three weeks of writing letters and pleading to get her state to submit a plan, which it did on Saturday.
“I’m not the favorite person right now in the state of Ohio on this,” she said. “I just said: ‘You don’t understand the sense of urgency. We need to do this.’ ”
Louisiana submitted its request on March 16 and then engaged in “a lot of back and forth,” said Korey Patty, the executive director of Feeding Louisiana. The USDA is used to responding to food needs after natural disasters that usually just impact one part of the state, and Patty said that it took some time to convey that the entire state was impacted by the virus and the economic fallout.
“There are so many more people who are being impacted by this, and it’s not just a virus issue,” she said. “It took a lot of time to communicate what the situation on the ground truly was.”
Later that week, the Virginia Department of Agriculture submitted its request and also experienced “a bit of a back and forth” with USDA officials, said Eddie Oliver, the executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.
“The scope of disaster here is totally unprecedented in the history of the program,” Oliver said. “I just think government officials really haven’t had to grapple with a disaster on this kind of scale before and how programs do or don’t fit the model.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture submitted its application on March 20 and then received “pushback upon pushback,” Clements-Smith said. In addition to trying to limit distribution to certain cities or regions, she said, the USDA seemed determined to keep income eligibility requirements.
“If you ever been to a food distribution, nobody wants to be there. I mean, you’re in a pretty emergency situation,” she said. “If you’re coming to pick up food like that, if you’re going to sit in a line for hours on end to pick it up, you need it.”
In talking to lawmakers, Clements-Smith often talks about people she knows who have seen their salaries shrink or disappear overnight. In the coming weeks, food banks will see many people who have never had to seek out help before, she said, and are likely embarrassed to have to do so.
“This is all of us,” she said. “We are all impacted by this pandemic.”
As job losses climbed, she and others organized a pressure campaign. Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding encouraged farm-related groups to call or write to the USDA. The full congressional delegation added its support, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Thursday, saying that it was “unconscionable” for the USDA to slow the distribution of food to fulfill “burdensome paperwork requirements.”
“It is inhumane to consider that Pennsylvanians who are doing the responsible thing by staying home to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities would go hungry because of USDA’s limiting interpretations and refusal to cut bureaucratic red tape during a national crisis,” Wolf wrote.
Clements-Smith reached out to Rep. Dan Meuser (R-Pa.) — who spoke at a Trump rally in Hershey, Pa., in December — and told him that she had heard USDA officials were worried about temporarily easing income eligibility requirements. She explained that relief was urgently needed, and he agreed to call Trump administration officials and others.
“We got on it. I felt that it was very important,” Meuser said in an interview Monday night as he delivered N95 masks to doctors in his district. “We’ve got many layoffs taking place. We’ve got a lot of nervous people. We’ve got kids that are out of school that normally count on our lunch programs and, in many cases, breakfast programs.”
Meuser credited Trump for letting states decide how they want to respond to this crisis, but he said he would also support the USDA nationally easing income eligibility rules for a month or two so that people can safely get the food they need.
Late Friday, the USDA approved Pennsylvania's disaster plan, along with those submitted by Virginia and Louisiana. If the disasters last longer than a month — which the twin economic and coronavirus difficulties seem certain to — they will have to negotiate extensions.
For now, in all other states, food banks will have to continue requiring staffers or volunteers to gather income and residency information from those seeking a box packed with beans and canned vegetables.
Laura Reiley contributed to this report.