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Ryan Anderson

Budget and Policy Post
March 25, 2020


Nutrition Programs in COVID-19 Recovery Actions

Updated April 10, 2020 to reflect the March 27th enactment of H.R. 748, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the approval of certain waivers by the federal government, and various state actions taken since the original publication of this post.

The federal and state governments have enacted many measures in recent weeks to mitigate the economic and public health consequences of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), including its effects on nutrition access. In this post, we describe the challenges Californians may face in accessing nutrition assistance as a result of COVID-19, summarize the nutrition-related provisions of federal and state relief actions, and highlight any further steps the state may need to take to access the new funding and program flexibility. We are accurate to the best of our ability given the urgent response needed and the rapidly changing situation. We will continuously monitor the situation and provide updates as necessary.

COVID-19 Restricts Many Californians’ Access to Food. Although the full economic consequences of the current COVID-19 public health crisis will not be known for some time, many Californians have already experienced at least three changes affecting their access to food. First, some Californians have lost income due to layoffs, temporary business closures, or reduced hours. These Californians may find it difficult to purchase adequate amounts of food for themselves and their families. Second, many sites providing meals to targeted populations have closed during the current crisis, including schools which provide students free or reduced-priced meals and congregate meal sites which serve seniors. Although many of these sites have taken measures to limit associated nutrition effects (for example, by allowing children to pick up meals from school each day or delivering meals to seniors in their homes), these efforts likely have limits (such as reaching families who lack transportation to and from school or reaching seniors when sufficient volunteers are unavailable). Finally, the state and many counties have issued guidance for vulnerable populations such as older adults to remain in their homes. Although the guidance encourages individuals to continue essential activities such as grocery shopping (while taking the necessary precautions), the ability for some older adults to do so safely may be limited (for example, older adults who cannot grocery shop or prepare meals on their own).

Several Existing Federal Programs Increase Californians’ Nutrition Access. Most notably, about 4 million low-income Californians receive more than $6 billion annually in in federally funded monthly cash assistance for purchasing food through CalFresh, California’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). About 3.7 million California students are eligible to receive free or reduced-priced meals at school (in most cases, these students are also eligible to receive CalFresh). About 900,000 Californians (consisting of pregnant women, new mothers, and young children) receive a total of more than $700 million in federally funded nutrition benefits through the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. These programs are not mutually exclusive and some individuals may be enrolled in more than one. Other notable federal nutrition programs include the Emergency Food Access Program (TEFAP), which provides food to low-income households through a statewide network of food banks (for a total annual amount of about $50 million in California), and senior nutrition programs funded by the Older Americans Act (OAA), including home-delivered and congregate meals (benefiting about 200,000 Californians for a total annual amount of about $90 million). (The state in recent years has provided funding to supplement some of these federal programs.)

Some Existing State-Only Programs Also Increase Californians’ Nutrition Access. Although this post focuses on federal nutrition programs, the state also operates several programs increasing nutrition access for targeted populations. One example is the California Food Access Program (CFAP), which benefits 35,000 legal permanent residents whose immigration status renders them ineligible for SNAP. Other state-only nutrition programs include a variety of one-time grant programs provided through the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Two Recently Enacted Pieces of Federal Legislation Include Emergency Expansion of Nutrition Programs. The federal government has enacted two large COVID-19 relief packages that include notable provisions relating to nutrition access: H.R. 6201 (the Families First Coronavirus Response Act) and H.R. 748 (the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act). The nutrition related provisions of these acts include:

  • Increased Programmatic Flexibility.

    • Allowed states to develop plans increasing SNAP benefits for families with children unable to access free or reduced-priced meals due to COVID-19 school closures.

    • Allowed states (for the duration of the current public health emergency as declared by the federal Secretary of Health and Human Services) to increase SNAP benefits for all families to the maximum amount allowed for their family size.

    • Waived (for the duration of the current public health emergency as declared by the federal Secretary of Health and Human Services) the requirement that certain adults without children work a minimum of 20 hours per week to receive SNAP benefits.

    • Waived (for the duration of the current public health emergency as declared by the federal Secretary of Health and Human Services) the requirement that eligibility assessments for SNAP and WIC be conducted in person and allowed states to request waivers of any additional requirements believed to impede recipients during the crisis.

    • Waived (for the duration of the current public health emergency as declared by the federal Secretary of Health and Human Services) various programmatic requirements for schools and OAA meal programs, allowing them to provide more meals to students and older individuals in accordance with social distancing guidelines.

  • Provided Additional Funding for Certain Existing Programs.

    • Provided $8.8 billion nationally for child nutrition programs in order to ensure children receive meals while school is not in session (details on this allocation are forthcoming).

    • Increased WIC nutrition assistance by $500 million nationally.

    • Increased TEFAP by a total of $850 million nationally ($400 million in H.R. 6201 and an additional $450 million in H.R. 748).

    • Increased OAA senior nutrition program assistance by $750 million nationally ($250 million in H.R. 6201 and an additional $500 million in H.R. 748).

The additional funding for child nutrition programs, WIC, TEFAP, and OAA are intended to support nutrition access for individuals adversely impacted by the current public health crisis, such as those who have recently lost their jobs. Unlike these programs, SNAP is an entitlement program for which funding automatically increases as more people become eligible (for example, during an economic downturn). Consequently, the federal relief acts do not explicitly increase funding for SNAP, although we anticipate California will receive increased SNAP funding as the economy contracts and caseloads increase. Following the Great Recession, SNAP caseload increased roughly 40 percent.

Federal Government Has Approved Increasing CalFresh Allotments. The H.R. 6201 allowed states to apply for waivers to increase SNAP benefits for all families to the maximum amount allowed for their family size (similar to the benefit provided in recent wildfires and power outages by the Disaster-SNAP program). On March 30, California was approved for such a waiver. The state expects to provide these augmented benefits shortly.

California Has Been Added to SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot Program. On April 8, 2020, the federal government approved California’s request to provide online food purchasing to SNAP beneficiaries. California is currently working with the federal government to expand the list of authorized online retailers (which currently include Amazon and Walmart).

Recent State Actions Also Intended to Increase Nutrition Assistance. Most recently, on March 31, 2020, the administration announced its intent to provide $24.3 million to counties for increased administrative workload related to CalFresh and $20 million to support California food banks currently operating TEFAP. These funds were authorized through Chapter 2 of 2020 (SB 89, Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review), the funding provided by the Legislature to the administration to respond to COVID-19. On March 20, 2020, Governor Newsom mobilized the National Guard to provide logistical support to the state’s food banks. On March 17, 2020, Governor Newsom signed Executive Order N-29‑20 which, among other actions, suspended for 90 days any state law requiring recertification for access to several social service programs, including CalFresh and CFAP. In addition, the California Department of Social Services—which oversees county-level administration of most federal and state nutrition programs—has issued guidance to counties on how to minimize face-to-face interactions with recipients during the public health crisis.

State Likely to Take Further Steps to Fully Benefit From Increased Flexibility. The federal relief bill allows states to request waivers of any administrative requirement that might prevent recipients from accessing SNAP or WIC benefits during the current public health crisis. It is our understanding that the administration continues to assess what steps it will take to fully benefit from the increased flexibility.

Although Unknown Exactly How Much Emergency Federal Nutrition Funding Will Reach California, Likely More Than $1 Billion. California will receive expanded federal nutrition funding in two ways. First, those programs that have received a specific funding augmentation (including child nutrition, OAA, WIC, and TEFAP) will be appropriated to the states in coming weeks and months. We do not yet know how all of this funding will be apportioned, but roughly estimate the state could receive several hundred million dollars under those expansions. Second, the state will receive additional funding through the expanded flexibility offered to SNAP, specifically the augmented amounts offered to all recipients and the additional benefits offered to students affected by school closures. These funding amounts will depend largely on CalFresh caseload and on the details of the state’s plan to benefit students (which have not yet been finalized), but we very roughly estimate the total benefit of both of these changes at around $1 billion.