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Food System Concerns in the Time of COVID-19

This post was written by FLPC staff. 

Overflowing shopping carts and empty shelves at grocery stores, shuttered schools and universities, and millions of hourly workers fearing for their income are just a few of the societal impacts of COVID-19. While the crisis may be unique, the reaction is familiar: people rush to take stock of their economic situation and ability to fulfill basic needs such as food in the event that access and availability is suddenly and drastically compromised. Many are facing a myriad of unanswered questions—‘do I have sufficient food and water at home? And if not, can I afford to invest in these staples?’ ‘do I have stable, safe, and secure living situation?’ ‘do I have the necessary resources to care for my own health as well as the welfare of my loved ones, and my community?’

Here at FLPC, we recognize that these questions carry additional weight for those who are already experiencing food insecurity and socio-economic vulnerability. Accordingly, we are working to alleviate this burden by thinking about the increased pressure that this pandemic will place on our nation’s food system in order to help policymakers adjust this system to make it more resilient, equitable, and responsive to people’s basic food needs. We are already hard at work on several projects aiming to shore up emergency food systems, supporting donations of excess food due to closures of universities and other venues, and analyzing opportunities to increase low-cost home food delivery.

Below, we highlight a handful of other major concerns that we believe require immediate and thoughtful consideration:

     1. Loss of Income for Hourly Workers

Even if grocers are able to restock shelves to ensure that food supply remains sufficient, will people be able to afford to purchase the food they need? Stocking up on food for one’s household requires ready cash or credit and a secure source of income. During a pandemic, workers will lose many employment benefits and salaries. This is particularly true for hourly workers—which includes 60% of all workers age 16 and older—who are paid only for shifts worked, regardless of whether the lost shifts result from the employee’s own illness or the employer’s decision to reduce or close down operations.

These hourly workers, and especially low-wage workers, are also much less likely to receive social protections; less than 30% of food preparation workers, food service workers, and childcare workers, for example, have access to paid sick leave. As a result, hourly workers are likely to continue attending shifts, even if they’re feeling ill or ‘social distancing’ is pronounced as a best practice for mitigating virus diffusion (as is the case with COVID-19).

Unfair sick leave policies have been spotlighted during this latest public health crisis. Several large private companies have fast-tracked and implemented new paid sick leave policies for hourly employees, including some major restaurant chains. While additional flexibility in these policies seems warranted given the circumstances–e.g. McDonald’s policy covers those “required to be in quarantine” but would seem to leave out those experiencing early symptoms–it is heartening to see large employers take this important, and overdue, step.

Policymakers have followed suit. The House aid bill (the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” or “FFCRA”), passed this weekend, would require two weeks of paid sick leave and twelve weeks of reduced-pay family and medical leave to cover coronavirus-related absences for some employers. However, observers have been quick to point out that not all workers are covered under the bill’s provisions. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents thousands of grocery store, retail, and food packaging workers, quickly condemned the legislation as insufficient.

Even with paid sick leave policies, many workers may also experience reduced hours or find themselves temporarily unemployed as employers respond to slowing business or government directives to close up shop. Food service workers are already seeing an outsized impact from the pandemic due to government orders to shutter restaurants and bars. The House aid bill, FFCRA, rightly anticipates that these shifts will increase demand for unemployment compensation and supplemental nutrition programs (addressed further below) and provides additional funding for these programs.

The U.S. Department of Labor has already released guidance to help states navigate their flexible authority in administering their unemployment insurance programs. DOL should further promulgate best-practice guidance for states expanding their programs under the terms of FFCRA and to ensure the speedy delivery of benefits. In the meantime, states should move quickly to expand the reach of existing programs, as was done today by the Governor of Michigan.

     2. Barriers to Receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Benefits

In the last year, the Trump Administration has issued a series of changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that can only be described as disastrous for food security in America. For example, last month, the Department of Homeland Security finalized its public charge rule; on April 1st, USDA will finalize its changes to limit work requirement waivers; and soon, USDA will finalize its rules for categorical eligibility. These changes are discussed, in turn, below. Even without a pandemic, these changes would upend access to food for millions of Americans. Under the threat of COVID-19, the detrimental impact of these changes will be devastating.

In addition to engaging in a critical analysis of how to halt or repeal these rules, several other actions can be taken by Congress and USDA to speed SNAP enrollment for those in need and increase program flexibility to meet the current challenge.

     1. Public Charge

On February 24, 2020, the Trump administration finalized its controversial rule on “public charge.” When any non-citizen seeks to make a change in immigration status, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will make a determination as to whether that individual constitutes a Public Charge. The determination means that the individual uses “too many” federal resources to be approved for a change in immigration status. Historically, the rule only applied to individuals who took advantage of cash benefit programs— most notably, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). However, under the new Public Charge rule, many more federal benefits will be considered in the determination, including SNAP, Medicaid, and housing benefits. Importantly for advocates providing direct services to communities concerned about public charge, public charge does not apply to WIC programs, emergency medical care through Medicaid, or any disaster programs, including D-SNAP. Nevertheless, the announcement of the proposed rule alone caused a chilling effect among immigrant communities, with fewer applicants seeking support under these essential programs, including those not included in the rule, such as WIC.

On March 13, USCIS announced that no treatment or preventative care related to COVID-19 would be considered in making a public charge determination. The statement did not address whether SNAP or other public benefits would also be included in making the determination; considering these factors would be problematic, as even before COVID-19, the new rule forced communities to choose between access to basic needs—food, healthcare, housing—and immigration status. Under the stressed conditions of the pandemic, this apparent “choice” will only become more debilitating for those impacted. To learn more about the dangers of the Public Charge rule, check out FLPC’s comment submitted in opposition to the original proposed rule.

     2. Work Requirements

Work requirements have been a component of SNAP since Welfare Reform in the 1990s. The rules require “able-bodied adults without dependents” (ABAWDs) to work an average of 20 hours per week to qualify for benefits for more than three months in any three-year period. Currently, states have relatively broad discretion to waive this requirement in areas of high unemployment; this discretion is under threat, however, due to a scheduled rule change.

In 2019, USDA proposed changes to the rule, which, as of April 1st 2020, would reduce the ability of states to request waivers to the work requirements due to challenging work conditions in the state. To justify the change, the Administration cited the “recovered economy” (post 2008 recession) as the reason to eliminate work requirement flexibility. Yet even under conditions at the time the rule was written, USDA projected that 700,000 SNAP recipients would lose eligibility. The proposed change understandably elicited a strong response in opposition, and FLPC submitted a comment objecting to the proposed rule.

Due to COVID-19, the potential impact of this rule change becomes even more damaging. Under new protocols for COVID-19, including quarantine and social distancing, it will be increasingly difficult for individuals to reach their minimum requirement of 80 work hours per month in order to maintain SNAP eligibility. As explained above, already, hourly workers at major employers are being sent home and restaurants are closing. This means workers will be earning less money and become more reliant on SNAP, at the same time that many will lose eligibility. Even after the start of the COVID-19 epidemic, USDA stated that it planned to continue with implementation of this rule, despite the public health crisis. (Vox article here).

On March 11, as part of the Congressional COVID-19 response, Reps. McGovern (D-MA) and DaLauro (D-CT) introduced a bill that would bolster SNAP, including halting the work requirement changes from being implemented. This legislation has not yet passed, but it is pending. Fortunately, on Friday, March 13, the D.C. Circuit Court issued an injunction against the work requirements rule. The Court held in its injunction that many aspects of the final rule “are likely unlawful because they are arbitrary and capricious.” An injunction means that the changes to work requirements cannot go into effect until the courts reach a final decision on the merits of the case. This is an important intervention, but does not completely eliminate the threat of the pending rule change. Congress and USDA should act to halt the work requirements rule from taking effect.

     3. Categorical Eligibility

Categorical Eligibility (cat-el) is a process of enrolling individuals and families in SNAP if they already receive benefits through other government programs, namely Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The program facilitated the efficient enrollment of individuals and families already identified as needing support. Generally, states have broad discretion to administer TANF in any way they see appropriate, and states were able to choose to offer cat-el for SNAP to TANF enrollees.

However, in 2019, the Trump Administration issued a proposed rule that would only allow for cat-el enrollment if the benefit conferred was a cash benefit or restricted to benefits for particular uses, especially work supports and childcare. You can read FLPC’s comment in opposition to the rule here, written in collaboration with the Farm Bill Law Enterprise.

If the Administration issues a final rule on cat-el along the lines of its proposed rule, it would prevent the speedy enrollment of new families and individuals who will be affected by the rapid economic changes brought on by COVID-19. This pandemic is exactly the time that state officials need authority to enroll as many of their residents in SNAP as possible, and delaying or halting implementation of USDA’s proposed cat-el rule will facilitate that process.

On March 13, the entire Massachusetts Congressional delegation sent a letter to Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture, demanding that USDA not implement any additional barriers to SNAP enrollment. USDA had not responded as of the time of this post.

*Increasing Enrollment and Flexibility in SNAP*

While the above barriers may create additional challenges to claiming SNAP benefits, there is a mechanism that could help to expand the program’s reach during the current pandemic. Disaster-SNAP (D-SNAP) provides states with broad authority to enroll new beneficiaries and increase the benefits of existing recipients. D-SNAP was first created through the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. The Act was originally contemplated for “natural catastrophes” that include volcanoes, hurricanes, tornados, etc, but has been used in public health responses, such as to West Nile Virus under Clinton. State requests for D-SNAP are intended to help states respond to localized crises. On March 13, Trump declared a national emergency, which could enable access to D-SNAP programs.

Congress should further be looking to pilot new SNAP provisions that will increase enrollment and contemplate innovative delivery. D-SNAP already has provisions for innovative home delivery models through state agencies, private organizations, and FEMA.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, USDA also should implement expanded use of online EBT redemption. The 2018 Farm Bill already expanded online acceptance of SNAP beyond simply a pilot program to be a standard program. The drafters of the Farm Bill instructed USDA to “promptly implement” the program nationwide, which it has yet to do. This will become a necessary program to ensure food gets to those in need, as many SNAP beneficiaries are faced with social distancing policies and quarantine, making it increasingly difficult to use SNAP benefits in stores.

     3. Impact of School Closures on School Lunch

At the time of this post, 36 million students were affected by COVID-19 school closures (though this is changing rapidly – check here for up-to-date information on school closures nationally). Some states—Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Michigan, and West Virginia—have ordered all public schools to close; some of the largest urban school districts—Los Angeles, Austin, and Washington, D.C. have taken such action at the local level. Assuming these schools track the national rates of 52.3% of K-12 students eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, this means that 11 million students who are in need have suddenly lost access to school meals.

In response to these concerns, USDA has issued waivers in 28 states to many of the requirements for school meals. Most importantly, USDA is waiving the requirement that school meals be eaten in groups. USDA is allowing for schools to have drive-by pick-up of meals that would typically be eaten in schools. Schools are attempting to broaden their reach by distributing from community centers and city buildings. FLPC commends these initiatives, as they are helping to provide access to vital meals for many families. Unfortunately, not all schools have mechanisms to safely deliver food to students. This means that students or families who are in quarantine or self-isolation or otherwise do not have access to transportation may not have access to meals.

Lawmakers are considering several programs to fill the gaps of SNAP and the School Meals. Congress is considering rolling out Pandemic-SNAP (P-SNAP), which is an unused program created during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. P-SNAP would authorize the USDA to approve state agency plans to provide additional electronic benefit transfer funds to households with children who are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches while schools are temporarily closed. Utilization of P-SNAP offers an opportunity to quickly offer SNAP benefits to families whose children are out of school but who are not able to get to schools or pick up sites.

     4. Heightened Pressure on Food Banks

While government assistance programs are vital for those who lack economic access to adequate food, emergency food assistance institutions, such as food banks, will also need to support far greater need during the COVID-19 crisis. Under normal circumstances, food banks help to ensure that those who lack sufficient financial resources are able to obtain enough food; since the outbreak of COVID-19, however, these institutions are seeing an onslaught of new customers as workplaces are cutting hours or shuttering their doors. According to Feeding America, the largest food bank network in the United States, under normal conditions 1 in 7 Americans rely on their network. This number will continue to rise as coronavirus cuts off access to food.

In addition to facing the challenges of increased demand, food banks are experiencing volunteer shortages, as many food bank volunteers are seniors, who are now being advised to stay at home. Volunteer shortages presents a major issue at a time when greater demand for donated food requires more hands on deck to help sort, package and prepare the donations. Existing volunteers may also be inundated with new, pandemic-specific tasks, including sanitizing the food bank as well as carts and counters or even shopping on customers’ behalf if physical access to warehouses is limited to volunteers and essential employees.

Food banks may also see a decrease in donations as grocery store shelves are emptied, resulting in less donation-friendly food. However, there are also increased opportunities for donations from new sources. As universities and other large institutions close or significantly reduce operations, many are left with excess food. Already, companies such as Disney Resort in California and Houston Rodeo operator RCS Carnival Group, and universities such as Harvard, Tufts, and Boston College have begun donating their surplus food to local food banks following recent closures. See our handout for a quick guide on university donations in the COVID-19 crisis.

There may also be opportunities to recover food from farmers who typically sell their produce at farmers markets or through farm-to-school channels. Since farmers markets are not operating due to social distancing measures, and farm-to-school programs are on pause, these farmers are struggling to find outlets to their food and to recoup their costs. Donating this food to emergency food assistance organizations can go a long way toward supporting their increased needs at this time. Opportunities exist to support these farmers by paying for their donations or utilizing funds that typically support farmers markets to support purchases from these farmers. Our recent issue brief offers more information on how Congress, USDA, and states can support these changes.

Finally, many food banks are struggling to transport large quantities of donated food, especially as the need for delivering food to homes increases due to self-quarantine or mandated social distancing. Feeding those confined to their homes will also require developing new or more robust delivery systems. Funds are needed from government and private donors to help support operational and transportation needs for these donation programs. Given the excess food emerging and the growing need, an increase in monetary or operational support to food banks and other food assistance organizations will significantly help to support their operations.


This post is not intended to intimidate or depress, but to inspire a conversation that will identify and explore new opportunities for strengthening our food system, especially in times of crisis. There is no silver bullet, and no one-size-fits-all solution to these aforementioned challenges. Nevertheless, FLPC is committed to staying apprised of emerging food system issues in the time of COVID-19 and identifying, evaluating, and analyzing all possible solutions as they arise.

You don’t have to be a food lawyer or expert to follow this lead; as we continue to respond to COVID-19, it is incumbent upon all of us to think of new practices and policies that will mitigate this public health crisis and ensure that our national food security does not suffer in the interim. If nothing else, this public health crisis has reminded us that we are all connected. It is our responsibility as global citizens to protect our collective health and wellbeing, and that starts with upholding and protecting the integrity of our food systems.  


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