Lawmakers agreed to a $900 billion coronavirus relief package on Sunday, which includes $13 billion in funding to support food assistance programs, at a time when demand and lines at food pantries around the country are reaching record levels.
About 13% of Americans, or 27.4 million people, reported they sometimes or often do not have enough to eat on a weekly basis, according to the latest Household Pulse Survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Dec. 16. About 14 million households with children report not having enough to eat.
It's a situation lawmakers hope to improve. "The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a hunger crisis that has touched every part of our nation," Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry said in a statement Sunday. "I am relieved that help is on the way and I look forward to continuing to do more in the new year to help Americans through this continuing crisis."
Sunday's funding deal includes a 15% increase to the maximum SNAP benefits for six months through June 30, 2021, a move that many advocates were calling for. The increase amounts to a boost of about $25 per person each month.
The average SNAP benefit per person was $125 per month during the fiscal year 2020, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That's about $1.39 per person per meal.
Roughly 6 to 7 million more people have applied and been approved for SNAP benefits since February, according to available data analyzed by CBPP. Nationally, that's about a 17% increase. About 25.3 million Americans total reported currently receiving SNAP benefits in the latest Census Household Pulse survey.
The latest relief package also expands SNAP eligibility to college students and excludes unemployment benefits from being counted as income when it comes to SNAP benefits. Additionally, U.S. territories including the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and American Samoa — which are not eligible for SNAP — will receive $614 million for nutrition grants.
The bill will also expand food access for children, including allowing any child under 6 to be deemed "enrolled" in child care and eligible for benefits under the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program. The program provides families with a voucher to purchase groceries to replace the breakfasts and lunches their children miss when schools and child-care centers are closed or only offering remote learning.
Congress reauthorized the program on Oct. 1, but it took the U.S. Department of Agriculture six weeks to establish the new guidelines for the program, meaning that states only started applying for funds this month.
Under the latest bipartisan deal, food banks also will receive $400 million in funding through the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Nutrition services for seniors, such as Meals on Wheels, will receive $175 million.
"Our network of member food banks across the country are witnessing unprecedented and sustained increases in demand for charitable food assistance," Kate Leone, Feeding America's chief government relations officer, said in a statement last week. "Families are making impossible decisions between paying the rent and putting food on the table while food banks are working tirelessly to keep up with the increased need."
The $13 billion in funding would provide "limited but immediate help," Leone said, adding that more federal funding and assistance would likely be needed in the future. "As always, and especially during this crisis, the simple truth is that charity alone cannot solve food insecurity."