On March 27th, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (H.R. 748). Of the roughly $2 trillion in federal funding that the CARES Act unlocks, $25 billion will go to food assistance. Nearly $16 billion of the $25 billion will support the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and another $9 billion will fund school meal programs.

Notably, the CARES Act does not include a 15% emergency increase in SNAP benefits that advocates, including the Tisch Food Center, have been pushing for. Families who already receive the maximum SNAP benefits will not receive any extra food assistance through SNAP, despite new economic pressures they may face.  Students may qualify for additional food assistance through an emergency program, akin to SNAP, called Pandemic Electronic Benefits (P-EBT), and Congress may provide additional food assistance in future legislative relief packages.

Below is a summary of the changes the CARES and Families First Coronavirus (H.R. 6201) Acts make to federal nutrition programs.

School Meals

  • Appropriations: The CARES Act authorizes an additional $8.8 billion for child nutrition programs to cover COVID-19 associated costs, available through September 30, 2021.
  • Additional Grants to School Districts: The CARES Act also makes funds available to school districts for planning and coordination during long-term closures. School districts may use a portion of their funds to determine how to provide meals to eligible students.
  • State-Specific Area Eligibility Waivers: The Families First Act allowed USDA to waive “area eligibility” for grab-and-go meals, making it easier for SFAs to serve meals to low-income students in school districts where poverty is not as concentrated, typically suburban and rural school districts. Under normal circumstances, USDA only allows such meal provision in areas where more than 50% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
  • Nationwide Congregate Feeding, Meal Time, Meal Pattern, and Guardian Pickup Waivers: The Families First Act also allowed USDA to suspend normal school meal requirements. To date, USDA has granted nationwide waivers that allow school food authorities (SFAs) to provide grab-and-go  and home-delivered meals; expand the hours when they serve food; deviate from nutrition standards if there are supply chain disruptions; and allow guardians to pick up meals for children.

USDA has not issued a nationwide waiver, but has approved area eligibility waivers for 31 states, including New York.  USDA is continuing to update its Child Nutrition Program State by State COVID-19 Waivers website with information about these waivers. 

P-EBT for Students

  • EBT Benefits: The Families First Act allowed states to provide electronic cash benefits to students otherwise eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals. School districts that implement the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) can provide benefits to all students. Families may receive around $114 per child per month. States are currently submitting plans for USDA approval to provide P-EBT to families that already receive SNAP and families not yet enrolled.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

  • Appropriations: The CARES Act authorizes an additional $15.8 billion for SNAP; $200 million for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa; and $100 million for the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) through September 30, 2021.

The additional funds allow states to issue additional, emergency SNAP benefits up to the maximum monthly allotment. Advocates called to increase the maximum SNAP benefit by 15% and increase the minimum benefit from $16 to $30, but were unsuccessful.

  • Work Requirements: The Families First Act suspended the work and work training requirements for able-bodied dependents without disabilities (ABAWDs). Congress also clarified that SNAP usage during COVID-19 will not count towards ABAWDs’ three-month SNAP allowance. 

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

  • The CARES Act did not address WIC.
  • Appropriations: The Families First Act authorized an additional $500 million for WIC available through September 30, 2021.
  • State-Specific Waivers: The Families First Act gave USDA broad waiver authority. States have applied for and USDA has approved physical presence and administrative waivers, enabling remote certification, remote benefits issuance, and stocking substitutions waivers. These waivers allow new families to receive benefits without potential exposure to COVID-19 and to substitute products when WIC-approved items are not available.

In subsequent bills, advocates are calling Congress to double the cash value benefit enabling participants to purchase more fruits and vegetables and to consider alternative food delivery and pickup models.

Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)

  • Appropriations: The CARES Act makes an additional $450 million available for TEFAP. The Families First Act authorized $400 million for food banks to meet increased demand.

 Senior Nutrition Program

  • Appropriations: The CARES Act makes an additional $520 million available for senior meals. The Families First Act authorized $250 million to cover home-delivered, Congregate Nutrition Services, and Nutrition Services for Native Americans.