We have to ensure Pa.’s most vulnerable have access to food during COVID-19 | Opinion

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By Kadida Kenner 

In the last month, you may have heard the phrase, “The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate.”

That’s mostly true.

The virus doesn’t discriminate, but oftentimes public policy and new policies put in place to mitigate a crisis certainly can. The elderly, the poor, those with pre-existing conditions, and especially communities of color who are disproportionately affected have felt the weight of this pandemic with full force.

One of this country’s and Pennsylvania’s most successful safety net programs that ensures no child or family member goes hungry is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as the food stamps program.

SNAP is a federal program that has helped families get through troubled times by ensuring food could remain on the table for families in need. Living in rural, urban, and suburban Pennsylvania, 1.8 million people currently participate in the program.

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Considering COVID-19 and the necessary shutdowns, utilizing SNAP benefits has been a challenge for communities already lacking access to public transportation or rideshares to take them to local grocers or big-box chains.

While Pennsylvanians are following Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders to exercise social distancing, participants would be putting themselves and their families at risk by not staying indoors.

That is why it’s necessary for Pennsylvania to join a pilot program of the United States Department of Agriculture that would allow for online purchases using SNAP benefits. The USDA is granting states significant program flexibilities to ensure states can take care of their most vulnerable.

A handful of states, including Washington Alabama, Iowa, Oregon, and Nebraska have already launched the program. The same can—and should—be done in Pennsylvania.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, is the prime sponsor of House Resolution 843. According to the memorandum, HR 843 would, “urge our Department of Human Services to submit an application to join this pilot and enable Pennsylvania SNAP participants to purchase groceries online during this unprecedented time.”

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HR 843 is a great start, and organizations like Just Harvest and thePittsburgh Food Policy Council have taken it a step further by drafting a letter to Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Teresa D. Miller requesting that Pennsylvania apply to participate in the SNAP pilot program and to open the online purchasing pilot to retailers that sell groceries other than big-box stores. Those retailers will require assistance in accepting online purchases at the point of sale. The advocacy to expand the SNAP program and benefits doesn’t stop there.

Organizations across the state, including the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center and the We The People – PA campaign, are also demanding that SNAP benefits should be protected and expanded by:

  • limiting termination of SNAP benefits and by extending SNAP certification periods;
  • ensuring that SNAP benefits are promptly increased when income declines, limiting verification requirements;
  • providing emergency SNAP assistance to households with children who are losing free or reduced-price meals because their schools are closed; and
  • increasing SNAP benefits wherever possible.

These demands won’t mitigate all the challenges SNAP participants will face if Pennsylvania is accepted into the pilot SNAP program.

Families will still need to cover delivery fees, not covered by their benefits, and hope that various retailers deliver to their zip codes—but it’s a start, and we must keep pushing for more. Vulnerable communities that were already suffering their own personal state of emergency prior to the global pandemic, are suffering now, even more. We can change that in the short term and for the long haul.

Kadida Kenner is the director of campaigns for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, including the project We The People – PA. She writes from Harrisburg while practicing social distancing and sheltering in place for the health and safety of everyone.