SNAP, Food Assistance, and COVID-19

Posted on by Susan Blumenthal, M.D.

SNAP waivers that were issued during the pandemic provided a number of “flexibilities” to improve access to food benefits for participants.. Many of these waivers were made possible by the Families First Act. Some waivers require states to apply for authorization to take advantage of the waivers, while others are designed for all states to access.  Examples of the waivers that were issued during the COVID-19 pandemic include:

  • Increased benefits for households that normally receive less than the maximum SNAP benefit. The maximum benefit for households increased by 15% through September 2021, and single, unemployed adults under age 50 no longer face a three-month limit on benefits. Some states have continued this increase through the end of the 2021. While this was helpful, a Johns Hopkins study found that agencies would have preferred a larger and less cumbersome expansion of benefits.  Additionally, in August 2021, the USDA updated the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which is used to set the amount of food assistance people participating in SNAP receive, to more accurately reflect the cost of a healthy diet. The update to the TFP will increase maximum SNAP benefits by 21 percent, raising average benefits per person per day by about $1.20 to about $5.45 in fiscal year 2022 — a modest but meaningful increase to SNAP benefit levels for millions of participating households.T he updated TFP will lift 2.4 million SNAP participants — including over 1 million children — above the poverty line and will improve food security and promote children’s health.
  • Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) was enacted for children on free and reduced-price school meals who attended schools that experienced closures of five or more days in Spring 2020. Through P-EBT implemented in every SNAP jurisdiction (except for Guam), eligible school children enrolled in the free School Lunch program receive temporary emergency nutrition benefits loaded on EBT cards that are used to purchase food. This allows families with children to buy food with their EBT cards instead of receiving the children’s meals at schools that were closed during the pandemic. Many of these food benefits were provided to children retroactively by providing equivalent benefits to “replace” the meals lost both during the school year and the summer. Since the initial authorization, this program has been extended and is currently authorized as long as there is a national public health emergency.
  • Expanded online purchasing – Building on a pilot program included in the 2014 Farm Bill, this provision allows retailers to apply for authorization for online food purchases with SNAP EBT benefits. Delivery and service fees, however, cannot be paid using SNAP benefits, so customers have to cover these services out-of-pocket. The initial pilot program proposed including at least five retailers and three states to evaluate the feasibility, usefulness, and security of online purchasing in the SNAP program. In 2017, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service selected eight retailers including Amazon and Walmart and eight states for the first phase of the pilot program launched in 2019. The pandemic had the effect of accelerating and widening implementation of this pilot program; only five states had initiated a pilot by early March 2020; however, currently, the majority of states (not just those that were initially selected for the pilot program have introduced this online ordering option. Results from these pilots are informative not only for the future of SNAP, but also for the future of WIC. The program’s expansion digitally holds promise for increasing food access. However,  several logistical challenges, such as a lack of streamlining certification for brick-and-mortar and online stores and the up-front costs of developing the online shopping platform still limit some retailers’ ability to offer online food shopping services for SNAP participants.
  • Expanded access to SNAP for students. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 temporarily increased access to SNAP for postsecondary school students. Under these provisions, which are set to apply through the end of the COVID-19 national public health emergency, students at postsecondary institutions can receive SNAP benefits if they participate in a state or federally financed work study program during the academic year or if they have do not expect a family contribution (EFC), including students who quality for the maximum Pell Grant. Before the pandemic, SNAP access for students at institutions of higher education were very limited.
  • Alleviating the administrative burden. The USDA allowed States to make changes to administering the program during the pandemic by applying for waivers. These waivers have given states authority to increase flexibility in the  administration of their SNAP and WIC programs such as eliminating or conducting remotely certain enrollment interviews as well as extending recertification periods. A Johns Hopkins University study found that waivers alleviated administrative burdens for states facing high workloads during the pandemic. The same study produced a set of recommendations including introducing automatic SNAP waivers during a national crisis, evaluating beneficial changes to SNAP programming, modernizing administration of the program, and helping agencies to incorporate new technologies into their services. Find the report here.
  • The American Rescue Plan Act included provisions to reduce  food insecurity by strengthening SNAP. Several provisions extended or expanded existing options such as P-EBT, the 15% increase in food benefits, and the online purchasing pilot. Beyond SNAP, the legislation includes provisions such as an additional $880 million for fruits and vegetables for WIC program participants, a $37 million additional investment in the Commodity Supplemental Food Program for low-income seniors, and $1 billion to address the nutritional needs in American Samoa, CNMI, and Puerto Rico. There is also increased funding to improve the administration of SNAP and modernize the program. Read more about the implementation of the American Rescue Plan Act’s nutrition services provisions here.


Additional Resources

FAQs: The Food and Nutrition Services COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions page: Learn more here

The American Rescue Plan and Food Security: Learn more here

Report on How States have Used Additional Options During the Pandemic: Learn more  here

FACT SHEET: Update on USDA Activities to Address the COVID-19 Pandemic: Learn more here

SNAP Waivers and Adaptations during the COVID‑19 Pandemic: A Survey of State Agency Perspectives in 2020: Learn more here

An Analysis of the Newly Expanded SNAP Online Purchasing Program: Learn more here

 Exploring the Rise of SNAP online: Learn more here

 Opportunities for States to Coordinate Medicaid and SNAP Renewals –  Learn more here



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