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Pandemic aid helped families’ nutrition and well-being — report

Temporary increases in federal aid during the COVID-19 pandemic had a “highly positive impact on overall family well-being” and made it easier for low-income families to afford sufficient and healthy food, according to two reports released on Tuesday by Hunger Free America. But as these supports were gradually withdrawn, respondents reported skipping meals and struggling to feed their families.

Speaking at an event to launch the reports, House Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat and longstanding advocate of policies to reduce hunger and poverty, said the survey’s message is especially important in the lead-up to the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health later this month.

“We do not need to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “When it comes to ending hunger, we know what works. We know that a little bit of extra help can go a long way.”

 The first survey asked 800 low-income parents how they were affected by the Childhood Tax Credit and SNAP benefits, both of which were temporarily expanded to ease financial hardship during the pandemic. More than 90 percent of respondents said the extra SNAP benefits helped them buy enough food and make more healthy, nutritious choices. More than three-quarters said they used the extra benefits to buy more fresh produce and that the extra grocery money freed up funds to spend on rent, transportation or childcare.

Eight in ten also said they favored having SNAP benefits increased so that people could afford healthier food rather than prohibiting purchases of certain foods with SNAP.

And, while the Child Tax Credit is not a nutrition program per se, 83% of respondents said the tax credits helped them get either enough food or healthier food.

But the expanded tax credits expired at the end of 2021. Extra SNAP benefits — called emergency allotments — remain in place across much of the country, though at least a dozen Republican-led states have effectively opted out of them.

Some respondents said they’ve been plunged back into precarity: “It’s been so hard, I only eat once a day so my kids can eat,” said one anonymous respondent. Another said, “This mental struggle is hard and I find myself getting angry easier, stressing instead of enjoying life with my kids, and coping with how to cover everything.”

Asked what they would tell elected officials about the Child Tax Credit and additional SNAP benefits, one person had a blunt message: “Get off you ass and vote this back in, we need it,” they wrote. “We need HELP, do the job we elected you into office for.”

The second report focused on in-depth interviews with 60 people who had received federal aid such as SNAP or Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) before and during the pandemic.

Respondents said that expanded SNAP benefits let them buy healthier food and also lasted longer into the month. Many respondents with children said the extra aid was “a relief” that let them pay for basic needs more easily. But a lack of reliable transportation remained a major barrier to getting food, particularly for people living outside major metropolitan areas.

Despite the increase in aid, respondents reported visiting food banks and food pantries more often during the pandemic, with 55 percent more respondents accessing emergency food during the first year of the pandemic than previously.

While temporary rule changes made it easier for college students to qualify for SNAP, a number of students interviewed did not know how to apply for SNAP or were not aware that they were eligible. Those that did receive extra benefits during the pandemic — on average about $250 — said that the funds were nearly enough to cover their food needs if they budgeted carefully.

Stigma associated with using federal aid was also a common theme. One respondent said she was reluctant to use her SNAP benefits at the farmers’ market in her “bougie” neighborhood because SNAP recipients were given wooden tokens to purchase food, since individual stands don’t accept EBT cards. Another said that when she uses SNAP at a New York City Whole Foods, cashiers run around calling “SNAP benefit” because they need help to process the transaction.

“There is no privacy,” the respondent said. “They are screaming up and down the aisle like ‘Can you come help with this SNAP customer?’”

McGovern praised the reports for conveying the perspectives of people living with hunger and food insecurity — voices often missing from policy debates. These insights will be crucial at the upcoming White House conference, he said, which will be “transformational” and help set the course to end food insecurity and improve health for years to come.

 “I keep telling people that we can’t go back to normal after the pandemic because normal wasn’t good enough,” he said. “Normal meant that tens of millions of people in this country were hungry, in the richest country in the history of the world. We all should be ashamed of that.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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