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pandemicfood

Food awaits distribution at a food drive in August in Washington, D.C.

President-elect Joe Biden is facing calls from anti-hunger groups to roll back some of the signature initiatives of the Trump administration, namely regulatory policies aimed at reducing the number of Americans eligible for food assistance.

The incoming administration is urged to halt the “categorical eligibility” SNAP rule proposed last year that would cut nutrition assistance for households with savings and other assets. Officials have said the rule would cut benefits to 3 million people and impede automatic access to free school meals for nearly 1 million children.

Anti-hunger groups are also calling on the president-elect to reverse the “public charge” rule, which would deny green cards to immigrants who use food stamps or other public benefits.

The two rules hang in the balance. The Trump administration has not yet finalized the categorical-eligibility rule for SNAP — the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly referred to as food stamps — and there have been multiple legal challenges to the public-charge rule. On Nov. 2, a federal judge ordered the administration to vacate the final rule, but the next day the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit issued an administrative stay of the court’s decision so the Department of Homeland Security could continue to enforce the rule.

Anti-hunger groups say the pandemic has reinforced the need to block the incoming rules.

“With food insecurity at an unprecedented level in modern history, it is critical that the incoming Biden administration immediately halt any of the rules that are still underway and work to reverse those that have been finalized,” said Mamiko Vuillemin, senior manager of policy and advocacy at FoodCorps, part of AmeriCorps.

Nearly 11 percent of American adults, 24 million, reported that their household sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the previous seven days, according to Household Pulse survey data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau from Oct. 14 to 26. That was far above rates reported before the pandemic: 3.7 percent of adults reported that their household had “not enough to eat” at some point over the full 12 months of 2019, according to earlier survey data.

Biden’s campaign platform proposed increasing SNAP benefits by 15 percent and temporarily providing low-income families with about $100 per month in extra nutritional support. The 15 percent increase in SNAP was proposed by House Democrats in the $2.2 trillion Heroes Act 2.0 stimulus bill, but the Senate adjourned without passing another stimulus package.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a 15 percent increase would help more than 16 million people, including 7 million children, who live in households that participate in SNAP and have not received extra SNAP pandemic-emergency benefits.

Avenel Joseph, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s vice president of policy, anticipates this will be an early focus for the Biden administration.

“There’s been a lot of damage that’s been done to the SNAP program over the past four years, and it’s received a lot of attention. I’m sure they are looking at what can be done by executive order,” she said. “When people are losing their jobs, getting food on the table is one of the hardest things to do.”

According to Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst focused on SNAP at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, anti-hunger advocates are urging Biden to focus on expanding the retailers in rural areas that participate in Pandemic EBT, a debit-card assistance system for children who ordinarily would receive free or reduced-price meals at school.

Amazon and Walmart are the only approved retailers, which leaves many rural communities out of reach of assistance. And in Puerto Rico, which receives NAP instead of SNAP, a capped block grant with smaller benefits, food needs are not being met, Bolen said.

School meal programs nationwide are struggling with substantial financial losses amid pandemic-related school closures and higher pandemic food and supply costs, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, the trade group for school food-service manufacturers and professionals.

The Agriculture Department recently extended a package of regulatory waivers to help school meal programs safely serve students free meals during the pandemic. However, Pratt-Heavner said, “to sustain school meal programs and build on the progress achieved in school cafeterias in recent years, Congress and the new administration must address this funding crisis.”

Bolen urged the Biden administration to look at the food needs of infants and toddlers, who are too young to be covered by Pandemic EBT. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (called WIC) has seen declining participation for the past six years, Bolen said. The pandemic has exacerbated this: The program relies on in-person visits with a nutritionist, which is complicated by social-distancing guidelines, and its list of eligible foods may leave participants without options when supply chains falter and grocery store shelves have gaps.

Joseph said Biden’s focus for WIC should be extending the eligibility to postpartum mothers and removing a burdensome reapplication process.

“When you’re a new mother there’s a lot on your mind, and the last thing you want to do is fill out a long application,” she said. “We think children should be covered under WIC through the age of 6. And the climate is right to talk about racial equity in WIC, about making packages more culturally inclusive.”

For Noreen Springstead, executive director at WhyHunger, a national nonprofit organization working to end hunger and poverty, the pandemic has laid bare the cracks in the American food system — record food insecurity, skyrocketing farm bankruptcies, unprecedented supply-chain disruptions — as well as the need for bold solutions. In addition to expanding SNAP and Pandemic EBT, the immediate next step should establishing a living minimal wage, she said.

“Half of people receiving SNAP benefits are working, which goes back to the issue of low wages,” she said. “We need to look at corporations that are low-wage employers who rely on government programs to supplement the wages.”

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