(Sabrina Xie / Sun Graphics Designer)

November 4, 2020

Food Stamps on the Ballot: What Does This Election Mean for Those Facing Food Insecurity During the Pandemic?

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As the U.S. faces a third wave of coronavirus cases and some cities and states prepare for another round of shutdowns, thousands of households are continuing to face economic hardship and food insecurity. Earlier this year, the Trump administration finalized a proposed rule change that would have blocked nearly 700,000 people from getting essential food assistance, one of three of the administration’s efforts to overhaul the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

The new rule would have affected the eligibility criteria for able-bodied adults with no dependents, limiting states’ ability to waive existing work mandates and requiring individuals to be employed to receive benefits. It was struck down last week by a federal judge after Pennsylvania and California residents sued Trump’s Agricultural Department. Critics say that this proposal is yet another attempt by the Trump administration to continue its deregulatory war on existing safety net programs, even as businesses struggle and the number of newly unemployed households remains high as a result of the pandemic.

“The Final Rule at issue in this litigation radically and abruptly alters decades of regulatory practice, leaving States scrambling and exponentially increasing food insecurity for tens of thousands of Americans,” explained D.C Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell, in a 67-page opinion.

While this potentially detrimental rule was successfully blocked, the administration is still working on two additional proposed regulations that would have profound impacts on people who rely on SNAP benefits, making the results of the November 3rd election all the more consequential. The first of these regulations would tighten the rules governing who qualifies for aid, potentially stripping millions of people of their benefits and blocking hundreds of thousands of children from accessing free school means, and the second would change how allowances for utility expenses are calculated. 

The U.S. is suffering its worst hunger crisis in decades. Researchers at Feeding America estimate that by the end of this year, 1 in 6 households will experience food insecurity. In 2019 alone, 38 million people relied on SNAP, 12 percent of the total U.S. population. Since the start of the economic crisis spurred by COVID-19 in February, an additional 6 to 7 million people have applied and been approved for benefits, an unprecedented increase, blowing figures from the Great Depression out of the water. Black and Hispanic families are suffering from food insecurity disproportionately, and the gap between those households and white households is widening. In places where income inequality is already extreme, like Tompkins County, where just one quarter of Black workers make a living wage, the pandemic has proven that disparities in food access can widen rapidly.

In Tompkins County, more than 3,500 households receive food stamps, also known as Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBTs). In Ithaca, over 1,100 households use EBTs in grocery stores and markets across the city, including Ithaca Farmers Market, Wegmans, Greenstar, Target and Walmart among others. Some of Ithaca’s own businesses are also spearheading programs to ensure those receiving food assistance have access to nutritious options. One of these efforts includes GreenStar Natural Foods Market’s food access program, FLOWER: Fresh, Local and Organic Within Everyone’s Reach. Cornell Cooperative Extensions across New York State also work closely with many local, state and national food assistance programs, including SNAP. 

On May 19, 2020, in a town hall with Chef José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, Joe Biden urged Trump to address the hunger crisis by working with Congress to enact the bipartisan FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries (FEED) Act. The bill would temporarily allow the federal government to pay restaurants to provide meals for the hungry, expand on Biden’s call for the Trump administration to strengthen SNAP and ensure nutritious offerings to those in need. If Biden wins the election, he pledges to increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent to assist families affected by the deepening recession and to temporarily provide low-income families with 100 dollars per month in additional nutritional support, an effort that would impact thousands of people in need in both Ithaca and across the country.

Food security is on the ballot this election. The results of the election, whenever they are finalized, will have a direct impact on whether or not people in our own community who depend on SNAP will be able to feed their families with nutritious food during the pandemic.

Rae Specht is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at rspecht@cornellsun.com.