SNAP Relief on Way Amid Tornadoes, COVID-19

USDA issues hot food waivers for three Tennessee areas; U.S. spending bill to expand food aid.

March 17, 2020

WASHINGTON—The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued hot food waivers for three Tennessee counties hit by tornados earlier this month, while more help appears to be on the way for child nutrition program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients nationwide amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Tennessee, retail food stores licensed by FNS and located in Davidson, Putnam and Wilson counties may accept SNAP benefits in exchange for hot foods and foods intended to be consumed on retailer premises, USDA announced. No sales tax will be collected on SNAP hot food purchases, and customers may eat the foods on the premises. The special rules are in effect through April 3 due to recent power outages and displacement of homes caused by tornados and severe weather where recipients cannot prepare foods at home.

“We encourage all SNAP authorized retail food stores in above counties to post a special notice in the store letting SNAP customers know that they can use their SNAP EBT benefits to purchase hot foods and, where practical, may remain on the premises to consume those foods,” USDA said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate was expected to take up coronavirus-response legislation passed by the House last week. The legislation would allow states to use money from SNAP to increase aid for families with children who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals if their schools have been shuttered for at least five days because of the pandemic. Under its child nutrition programs, USDA has already granted waivers to at least 25 states and the District of Columbia to allow them to serve grab-and-go meals to low-income students when schools are closed.

In addition, the bill would waive work and training requirements for food assistance for people who live in areas where the Health and Human Services Department has declared a public emergency, and it would reduce in-person interactions to receive the aid, the Wall Street Journal reports. The bill gives USDA almost $1 billion to support food programs, including $400 million for food banks.

A U.S. District Court on Friday approved a preliminary injunction to halt a USDA rule slated to take effect April 1 that would have limited SNAP benefits for certain able-bodied adult recipients, reports.

“Especially now, as a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential,” Judge Beryl Howell, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, said in the court’s decision.

Many Americans rely on convenience stores to redeem their SNAP benefits, especially in urban and rural areas where they do not have access to traditional grocery stores or because they shop during hours when larger format food stores may be closed. The local convenience store is often their only outlet to redeem this benefit. Out of the 152,720 convenience stores in the United States, more than 111,000 participate in SNAP—representing about 45% of all retail outlets authorized to accept SNAP benefits.

What’s more, 93% of Americans live within 10 minutes of a convenience store, including 86% of rural Americans. This proximity allows people to quickly acquire critical items in their neighborhood.