The Department of Agriculture spent nearly 50% more in 2020 than it did pre-pandemic to fund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – a figure that underlines the lifeline it provides to Americans struggling with hunger.
Spending ballooned to $90 billion last year as the program expanded from an average of 35.7 million recipients in fiscal 2019 to an average of 39.9 million in the last fiscal year, according to USDA. In December, Congress approved a 15% increase in benefits for six months, and both President Joe Biden and Senate Republicans have proposed extending those benefits through September as well as increasing funding for supplemental nutrition assistance to women, infants and children.
“We worry we’re not reaching everyone who needs our help, but absolutely the program has grown dramatically,” said Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at USDA.
The new Biden administration is reviewing programs and looking to expand assistance, a turnaround from the Trump administration, which tried to tighten eligibility but was blocked by a federal judge amid the pandemic last year.
“Many experts and, more fundamentally, the families who use it are worried that it just isn’t enough, and that it doesn’t reflect the cost of a basic healthy diet,” Dean said. “So we’re actually taking a look at that now to see if adjustments are needed to make it so that families can afford a basic diet with our benefits.”
Food banks report seeing first-timers
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is just that – a supplement. The program is designed to boost food budgets for families who live below the poverty line. But historic unemployment has left many more families struggling as the pandemic continues to surge.
On a recent Wednesday morning, about 1,000 cars packed the parking lot at a food distribution center run by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. The organization and its partners are serving 900,000 residents a month – almost a tenth of the population of Los Angeles County.
“Over 40% of those coming through are new to need. This is the first time they’ve sought food assistance from any type of program,” said Michael Flood, the food bank’s president and CEO.
He said many clients aren’t aware of federal benefit programs. “So we have information in the food boxes, letting them know how to apply,” he added.
‘The difference between life and death’
Veronica Bedico, a single mother of four, has been off and on SNAP for several years. She had been employed part time as a school aide but was furloughed in March. She now relies on food stamps more than ever.
“It may literally mean the difference between life and death. And that is not an abstract thing,” said Bedico. “It is quite literally the only way me, and others like me, have been able to survive without having any family support during this time.”
Bedico receives both SNAP and money from the Pandemic EBT program, but she still needs to make monthly visits to the Foothill Unity Center, a food pantry in Monrovia, California.
“All of those things have allowed us to survive, and not starve,” said Bedico.
Making it easier to get help
USDA says it is trying to make assistance programs more accessible by encouraging more sign-ups over the phone and online instead of in person.
“If you’re a working mom, coming in to a midday appointment in a WIC clinic might be hard for you, but maybe you could do an appointment over your mobile phone,” said Dean. “We want to try to flip it and be responsive to the needs of families who just need some basic help.”
That also includes expanding on the SNAP Online Purchasing pilot, which allows SNAP recipients to purchase groceries online instead of going in person to the grocery store. Forty-seven states have signed on to the program, which launched in April 2019 and now covers more than 97% of SNAP participants. Under the Biden administration the USDA hopes to sign up more stores that will both accept online SNAP orders and provide delivery.
Still not enough
Kenya Edwards signed up for SNAP but says it’s not enough. It’s why she was in line at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.
“I get like $200,” said Edwards. “I can make it stretch, but once it’s gone it’s gone.”
The lines in Los Angeles repeat throughout the country. In Georgia, 1 in 7 adults and 1 in 5 children are now food insecure, according to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
In New York, Public Health Solutions, which helps New Yorkers sign up for SNAP, says it’s seen a fivefold increase.
“This is a bit of a stopgap,” said Lisa David, president and CEO of Public Health Solutions. “It’s better than nothing, but it’s not helping people feel confident that they can put food on the table for their families every day.”
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story cited a USDA figure on the number of SNAP recipients for the last fiscal year that has since been revised.
CNN’s Kate Trafecante contributed to this report.