Expand Food Assistance During the COVID-19 Pandemic

American children are going hungry. Increasing access to SNAP benefits could help feed them.

Editor's note:

On May 15, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that calls for a temporary 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits and allots more than $4 billion for other public nutrition programs. It also would waive work requirements for SNAP recipients and block the USDA from implementing three regulations that would narrow eligibility for food stamps.


Sara E. Abiola
May 15, 2020

Hunger is growing in America in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Families who have never experienced food insecurity have a sudden need for nutritional assistance. Food banks are struggling to find ways to feed Americans who are out of work.  

Not surprisingly, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, will see record high numbers of new applicants in coming weeks.

A recent survey by the Brookings Institution found that nearly one out of every five mothers with kids 12 or younger said their children are not getting enough to eat—a rate three times as high as it was in 2008 during the worst of the Great Recession.

SNAP is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program. It is unique in its ability to make big differences quickly for low-income families. Nearly half of all SNAP participants are children.

SNAP participation decreases food insecurity, health care costs and the risk of excessive weight gain. This is critical in light of reports that underlying medical conditions—in particular obesity—are associated with greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed in March provides temporary authority for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and states to adapt the SNAP Program to meet skyrocketing demand created by a COVID-19-related spike in unemployment.

Many states already have adopted measures to ease access for existing SNAP households, such as increasing the maximum monthly allotment, suspending reassessment of income eligibility after job loss and piloting an online purchasing program. States also have attempted to accelerate the review of new applications by temporarily waiving in-person interview requirements.

Amid deep economic suffering and worsening inequality created by the pandemic, it is imperative that the USDA and states avoid partisan debates about SNAP expansion. To avert a media narrative that focuses on government inefficiency and ineptitude in the face of growing childhood hunger, USDA officials should continue to approve measures that will streamline access to more benefits for the greatest number of households.

One key provision that more states are pursuing is the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT). This benefit allows households with children who would otherwise be entitled to free or reduced-price meals at schools to receive meal replacement benefits through SNAP. This measure may present an administrative challenge, especially when trying to reach households with eligible children that are not current SNAP participants. However, the USDA already has issued guidance on how states might manage this program expansion.

In just a month, there have been 20 million new unemployment claims, the worst such numbers in a century. SNAP is the single strongest tool we have to inoculate Americans against food insecurity while also rapidly bolstering the economy. It is vital to ensure that households affected by job and income loss have as much access to SNAP as possible. Fighting hunger should be one less battle that Americans are asked to face as we move forward on the path to recovery post-pandemic. 


African-American woman with long black hair smiling, white dress

Sara Abiola is an assistant professor at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and co-director of the Better Health Systems Lab. Her research focuses on the effects of public health law and policy on population health with an emphasis on food policy, obesity prevention and non-communicable diseases in developed and developing countries. She has co-authored publications on these topics and others in the New England Journal of Medicine, Health Affairs and the Journal of Law, among other publications.

This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.