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How The Coronavirus Impacts People On Food Stamps

90.5 WESA

To avoid going out in public, many are turning to online ordering and delivery for basic necessities like groceries. But the coronavirus has created obstacles for many who rely on food stamps. In many states  people who receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are not allowed to use their benefits to order groceries online and have them delivered.
“A lot of seniors and folks who are immune-compromised who rely on SNAP to buy food aren’t able to use that benefit in the way they need to use it in order to get their food safely,” said Ann Sanders, public policy advocate at Just Harvest.

Sanders said she’s heard from a lot those people who don’t feel safe going to the grocery store right now but don’t have another option. “That’s a really big gap in what people’s needs are, and the ability of food stamps to help people meet their food needs in the way they need them to be met during this crisis.”

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Other groups that rely on the program have been spared at least some hardship they might have faced. As fears of an economic shutdown loomed earlier this month, a federal judge blocked the implementation of Trump Administration work requirements.

The rule that was set to take effect on April 1 would have required able-bodied adults without children to work a minimum of 20 hours a week to qualify for food stamps, following a three-month grace period of receiving benefits. Critics warned the new rules could have forced nearly 700,000 Americans off of food stamps. The judge said that as the concerns from the spread of coronavirus grow, it would be important for SNAP to have flexibility in meeting the needs of residents. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of more than a dozen state attorneys general, including Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro.

That rule would have affected more than 1,800 low-income residents in Allegheny County. Just Harvest estimates that the average individual receives around $120 a month through SNAP.

But Sanders said work requirements have not been waived for another vulnerable population: college students. She noted that when colleges and universities were in session, students had access to dining halls through their meal plan. Now that the coronavirus has forced institutions have moved to online classes, many college students don’t have reliable access to food.

Right now, students are still required to work 20 hours a week in order to qualify for benefits. (Sanders said work requirements weren’t waived for college students during the 2008 financial crisis either.) A recent report from the Government Accountability Office estimated that more than 2 million students use food stamps, and that many more could be eligible but didn’t know about the program.

But Sanders said there is some hope for students who need access to food during the pandemic: the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services announced this week that it submitted a waiver for work requirements for college students and is awaiting a response.

Lucy Perkins is an editor and also reports on federal government and elections for the Government and Accountability team. Before joining the WESA newsroom, she was an NPR producer in Washington, D.C., working on news programs like All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. You can reach her at lperkins@wesa.fm.