Help for hunger here at home

Congressman John Faso | NY Daily News

The Daily News’ front page this week said it all: “Hunger Pains,” describing how city food pantries were preparing for a potential second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The same story is being told across the nation. The Indianapolis Star reported on Sunday that food pantries were overwhelmed in Indiana. This is also the case in Maine and in upstate New York.

Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity is growing. In New York City, local officials estimate that approximately two million residents are food insecure.

Many families are food insecure and at imminent risk of going hungry unless Congress acts in a bipartisan way to address this issue. Yet Washington remains deadlocked on additional COVID aid.

The expiration of the $600 weekly unemployment benefit has resulted in millions of additional families qualifying for the food stamp, or SNAP, program. According to a late September analysis of Census Bureau data, approximately 14% of families with children report that they lacked sufficient food each week. Officials in Maine report that SNAP applications surged by 40% during the first week of August.

The American Public Human Services Association has stated that in the first three months of the pandemic, SNAP enrollment grew three times faster than in any previous recorded period. Much higher SNAP enrollments will mean major challenges to process and administer those benefits at the state and local levels. SNAP enrollment rose from 37 million to nearly 43 million — a rise of 15% — from March to April. A study from Moody’s Analytics earlier this year estimated that SNAP enrollment could rise to almost 70 million depending on the duration of the pandemic.

States also face administrative complexity in merging school nutrition programs, as authorized by the CARES Act, with the SNAP system. States must obtain eligibility information from local school districts and assist in getting benefits to families, many of whom would otherwise not qualify or apply for SNAP.

In the coming weeks, the expected deluge of SNAP applications will overwhelm states as they seek to process benefit applications. On a bipartisan basis, Congress and the administration should take steps to modernize and streamline this process by authorizing states to hire contractors to assist in processing SNAP eligibility and benefit determinations.

In 2018, the House-passed Farm Bill included such a provision, which I authored, but unfortunately this option for states was dropped prior to final passage.

There is precedent for providing states with flexibility to manage benefits programs. The CARES Act gave states the option to utilize contractors to help manage the unemployment insurance program, and 34 states and the District of Columbia take advantage of this provision. This is not a partisan issue, as governors of both parties have hired contractors to assist in managing the flood of unemployment applications and crush of public inquiries. Using contractors also avoids the hiring of permanent workers, something fiscally pressed states cannot afford and allows governors the ability to quickly ramp up and reduce contract help as needed.

Though Democrats and Republicans are divided on many issues, we can all agree that Americans should not go hungry. Congress and the Trump administration should make this happen today.

Faso represented New York’s 19th District in the U.S. House from 2017-2019. He is now a senior adviser to the Center for Accountability, Modernization and Innovation, which includes contractors who provide services to local, state and federal governments.