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USDA urged to remove barriers threatening SNAP food assistance

usdaA coalition of 22 states and New York City is urging the Trump administration to allow states to expedite the distribution of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to residents.

In a letter to the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the group makes clear that adjustments to administering SNAP—like allowing virtual interviews with SNAP recipients and extensions on reporting deadlines—help tens of thousands of SNAP recipients receive food assistance by allowing states to safely and efficiently recertify eligibility and process applications.

While FNS approved these waivers at the beginning of the pandemic, the agency has recently started denying some requests without sufficient explanation.

The coalition is pushing the Trump administration to provide guidance on what is required for approvable waivers, expand the flexibility of waiver options, and continue granting waivers during the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented economic crisis, which also means that more Virginians than ever may be turning to SNAP benefits to feed their families,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said. “Food access is critical to keeping families and communities healthy, but the Trump Administration has attempted to make several changes to SNAP that could potentially leave millions without a way to put food on their table. We must continue to accommodate our new reality and make it as easy as possible for Virginians to apply for and receive these crucial benefits.”

SNAP is our country’s most important anti-hunger program and a critical part of federal and state efforts to help lift people out of poverty. The program provides people with limited incomes the opportunity to buy nutritious food that they otherwise could not afford.

In March, as states began declaring public health emergencies, FNS approved waiver requests that helped ease regulatory burdens on state SNAP agencies so they could focus their resources on issuing SNAP benefits even as caseloads drastically increased and state budget constraints prevented the agencies from hiring additional personnel.

These waivers included allowing virtual interviews with SNAP recipients instead of requiring in-person meetings and providing extensions on reporting deadlines.

However, in a move to return to pre-pandemic operations, FNS recently told states that waivers would be approved only on more limited bases. The criteria for obtaining waiver approvals appears to have become increasingly strict, and it is unclear how FNS is evaluating these criteria state-by-state.

A lack of clear, public guidance on the criteria for these waivers and FNS’s lack of explanation for denials have left some states scrambling to formulate requests. Without waivers, states cannot process large backlogs of applications and eligibility recertifications in time to prevent families from temporarily losing benefits.

The coalition urges FNS to help states secure longer-term waivers by:

  • Posting clear guidance and criteria for how waivers are approved: FNS has not posted guidance on its website about what information states should include in waiver requests despite being required to do so by the Families First Coronavirus Recovery Act. Without this guidance, states cannot easily determine why some states’ requests have been approved while others have been denied. Posting this guidance publicly will allow states to see what data must be supplied to request adjustments and whether FNS is fairly assessing the economic and public health conditions in those states.
  • Increasing duration and flexibility of waiver options: FNS is currently requiring states to apply for most of the available waivers on a monthly basis even though all states and the federal government continue operating under public health emergency declarations and the pandemic is likely to continue for many more months. This requirement for monthly applications has placed a significant regulatory burden on the states at a time when most state SNAP agencies are overwhelmed with increased caseloads. The coalition urges FNS to allow states to liberally apply for multiple multi-month waivers of all commonly requested adjustments.