SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, provides essential short-term support for families and children struggling to afford enough food. During the beginning of the pandemic, SNAP enrollment grew from an average of 37 million people to 41.5 million as many individuals lost jobs or other sources of income.
For the state staff who administer SNAP, the pandemic has created a host of new challenges. From online access barriers to surges in enrollment, states pivoted again and again to meet the needs of participating families. A new brief from Healthy Eating Research (HER) presents key findings from studies that examined challenges and opportunities for SNAP due to pandemic-era program changes. The brief outlines steps to support state SNAP administrators in the short-term and beyond. The post below highlights a few.
- Waiver flexibilities: Early in the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers SNAP, issued waivers that allowed states to better address the challenges of COVID-19. These waivers included forgoing requirements to interview participants in-person, and easier recertification processes for families in need. However, states still had to apply to USDA for these waivers and the timing of waiver approvals, short duration of waivers, and rigid waiver guidance created challenges for state agencies. The brief authors recommend that in future emergencies, waiver flexibilities should be made automatically available to states, and states should be provided with the flexibility to implement waivers in ways that meet their unique needs.
- Diverse retailers: The American Rescue Plan included $25 million to expand SNAP online purchasing, provide technical assistance to smaller retailers and farmers markets, and expand virtual payment methods. Diverse retailers should continue to be supported by providing the infrastructure and services needed to facilitate online ordering and delivery—such as subsidizing online purchasing and delivery fees and offering secure, refrigerated pick-up locations for delivery. This is particularly important for local businesses such as small food stores, co-ops, and farmers markets.
- Educational resources: Additional educational resources and tools are needed to strengthen SNAP adults’ digital food and nutrition literacy skills. Prior to COVID, many adults had never ordered groceries online and navigating online shopping platforms proved to be difficult, especially for individuals looking to identify healthy choices. Digital, food, nutrition, financial, and marketing literacy skills training could be incorporated into SNAP-Ed to support participants’ use of digital technology.
- Additional needs: Researchers also identified investing in technology, improving interview requirements, and expanding access to broadband services as important, time sensitive needs.
- Modernizing SNAP: SNAP must be modernized to ensure that its services are available and accessible in the long term. Administrative funding should support IT system modernization for SNAP offices, including updating eligibility systems and customer portals, increasing availability of online purchasing, and building mobile-friendly applications to access SNAP benefits.
- Evaluating SNAP benefit coverage: SNAP benefit amounts are based on the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which is the cost of groceries needed to provide a healthy, budget-conscious diet for a family of four. USDA’s recent re-evaluation of the TFP resulted in the first increase of SNAP benefits since 1975. In October 2021, the maximum SNAP benefit amounts increased by 21%. Evaluations are needed to determine if the most recent SNAP benefit increase is sufficient to promote the nutrition security of participants across the country.
- Expanding program access: The brief recommends that program access be expanded to underserved populations, such as college students and individuals with low digital literacy skills. Digital literacy involves the ability to find and communicate information in the digital world. As SNAP moves to a more digital approach in an attempt to expand access, digital literacy must be a focus to reach older adults, those for whom English is a second language or those with disabilities. Pilot programs that allow for SNAP supportive services (i.e., SNAP-Ed, SNAP Outreach) to develop and test services that could close the digital divide for SNAP clients are critical.
HER acknowledges that further research is needed to better understand the most effective and equitable types of SNAP programming, both virtually and in-person.
Federal Nutrition Programs During the COVID-19 Pandemic: SNAP
This research brief presents key findings from three rapid-response studies that examined challenges and opportunities for SNAP due to these program changes. The three projects highlight additional policy, program, and research efforts needed in the short term to improve both state’s ability to administer SNAP and improve the availability and accessibility of services.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
As the nation’s largest nutrition program, SNAP helps roughly 43 million people access foods and beverages to support a healthy diet. SNAP can increase food security, improve children’s health and academic performance, support economic growth, and lift people out of poverty.
The Impact of Changing SNAP and School Meals During COVID-19
The largest nutrition assistance program in the United States is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—sometimes known as food stamps—with the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs also among the largest. These programs have become even more critical during the current pandemic but pending changes to those programs would fundamentally change how they are run and who has access to them.
How SNAP Helped this Alabama Mom Graduate College and Give her Daughter a Healthy Start
Jennifer Wells-Marshall was trying to make ends meet while in college and raising her young daughter. She worked every day, but it wasn’t enough to pay all the bills and put food on the table. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helped her cover the cost of food so her daughter wouldn’t be hungry.