The Pulse

Ongoing COVID-19 emergency declaration is keeping thousands of NC residents better fed

By: - July 6, 2021 11:50 am
Image: AdobeStock

Enhanced SNAP benefits are taking a bite out of hunger

The extended COVID-19 state of emergency in North Carolina declared by Gov. Cooper means that people who need help buying food will continue to receive enhanced benefits from the federal nutrition program.

Residents of states with emergency declarations receive “emergency allotments” from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which used to be called food stamps.

The American Rescue Plan extended the emergency allotments to September 1. The boost in food purchasing power hinges on both federal and state declarations of emergency remaining in place.

According to information North Carolina provided the federal government, the state expected 784,261 households to receive emergency allotments in June that total $134.7 million. The state estimated that 797,102 households would receive emergency allotments in July that would total $138.4 million.

Some states have canceled their emergency declarations, triggering the end of their supplemental SNAP benefits.

All SNAP households receive emergency allotments that added at least $95 to their monthly benefits. The additional benefits were included in the March 2020 federal coronavirus response act. Some households were excluded by the Trump administration. The Biden administration made all SNAP households eligible. Additionally, federal legislation from December 2020 added 15% to the maximum benefit. The US Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, estimated that the 15% increase for North Carolinians amounts to an average of $28 per month for each person.

SNAP benefits were temporarily increased after the Great Recession. USDA researchers found that low-income households increased spending on food by 5.4% and that food insecurity declined by 2.2 percentage points from 2008 to 2009.

Food insecurity increased as the COVID-19 pandemic forced people out of work. Eighteen percent of people who responded to an NC Central University poll last fall said they had been running short of food.

As infections drop with vaccine distribution, some routines of pre-pandemic life have returned. But people still need help getting all the food they need, said Jacquelyn Blackwell, co-coordinator of End Hunger Durham and executive director of the food bank Feed My Sheep.

The increased SNAP benefit has especially helped older people who without the extra emergency money often must choose between buying vegetables and fruits and buying meat, Blackwell said.

“It’s really helped stretch their budgets,” she said.

Feed My Sheep is open every second and fourth Saturday. In June, the food bank was continuing to see 100 to 125 people come in on those days, numbers largely unchanged from the height of the pandemic. More people come to the food bank at the end of the month when federal benefits are depleted, she said.

Lindsey Haynes-Maslow

The increased food benefit can have a huge impact on people’s lives, said Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, associate professor and extension specialist at NC State University.

The USDA ran a demonstration project starting in 2011 that provided monthly food benefits of $30 a month or $60 a month to children in the summertime when they did not receive free or reduced-price meals at school. It found that as little as $30 a month reduced food insecurity and resulted in the children eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

A nutritious diet is key to maintaining good health, Haynes-Maslow said. Unhealthy diets have been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, and strokes.

“If we don’t end up investing in the prevention side, we might end up paying on the insurance side,” she said. “You pay a little now, or you can pay a lot later, if there are health related issues.”

In the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last August, California researchers wrote that increased food insecurity in Black, Hispanic, and low-income households will likely outlast COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

More people in North Carolina reported sometimes or often not having enough food in June than they did in April this year, according to the US Census Household Pulse Survey.

The California researchers said the deeper and longer-lasting food insecurity brought on by the pandemic could result in increased illness and death.

A food program called P-BET that provides additional food benefits for children who are eligible to receive free or reduced-price school meals has been extended through the summer in North Carolina.

Researchers at the Sanford Center for Public Policy at Duke University in research published in 2018 found a connection between performance on standardized tests and the timing of food benefits.

They said their findings suggested that increasing benefits would help improve academic achievement for low-income students.

Looking at North Carolina students’ end-of-grade test scores, they found that test performance peaked  for children whose families used SNAP a few weeks after their families received their benefit transfers. EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards, which look like debit cards, are used to buy groceries.

The test score peaks were at 19 days post-transfer for math and at 17 days for reading.

Students were more likely to achieve scores showing grade-level proficiency when they took the reading test 16 days after benefit transfers. They were most likely to show grade-level proficiency in math when they took the test 20 days after benefit transfers.

The findings suggested that increasing benefits would improve academic achievement for low-income students, the researchers wrote.

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Lynn Bonner
Lynn Bonner

Investigative Reporter Lynn Bonner covers the state legislature and politics, as well as elections, the state budget, public and mental health, safety net programs and issues of racial equality.