The Agriculture Department is moving forward with plans to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to millions of Americans in response to an executive order President Joe Biden signed Friday.

"We cannot and will not let people go hungry." Biden said before signing the order, noting that many Americans have been "waiting hours in their cars" at food banks. 

"In support of President Biden’s call to action on hunger and with authorities provided by Congress, USDA is increasing the Pandemic-EBT benefit by approximately 15%, providing more money for low-income families and millions of children missing meals due to school closures," the department said in a news release.

Through the EO, the administration is launching "an all-of-government effort to provide equitable emergency economic relief to working families, communities, and small businesses across the nation," according to a fact sheet issued by the White House. "The actions taken as part of this effort will provide relief to millions of American workers who have lost their jobs and had their hours or wages slashed through no fault of their own. They will help working families feed their children and keep a roof over their head."

Separately, USDA said it "is looking at ways to increase [SNAP] benefits to all participants, especially lowest-income households and those struggling to afford a healthy diet for their families.”

In addition to the nutrition provisions, the EO will "help ensure that unemployed Americans no longer have to choose between paying their bills and keeping themselves and their families safe from COVID-19 by asking the Department of Labor to consider clarifying that workers who refuse unsafe working conditions can still receive unemployment insurance," the fact sheet says.

Put into place by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that Congress passed in March, Pandemic-EBT “connects low-income families with kids with food dollars equivalent to the value of the meals missed due to COVID-related school and childcare closures,” USDA said.

However, so far the program has capped benefit amounts at $5.86 per child per school day “and many households have had trouble claiming benefits,” the department said. “USDA will increase the current daily benefit amount by approximately 15% to tackle the serious problem of child food insecurity during this school year when need is greatest."

“The announcement today provides more food dollars directly to food-insecure kids living in low-income households who are missing critical meals due to school closures,” said Stacy Dean, newly named deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services.

On a separate track, USDA said it would “begin working with the Department of Justice to review its authority to allow states to provide extra SNAP benefits through Emergency Allotments to the lowest-income households.”

Despite congressional approval of emergency increases in last spring’s COVID relief bill, “those benefit increases have not been made available to the lowest-income households who make up 37% of SNAP households,” USDA said.

The benefits increase will “not only help families most in need, but it is also a critical and effective form of economic stimulus,” USDA said, citing a study that found that in a slow economy, “$1 billion in new SNAP benefits would lead to an increase of $1.54 billion in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — 54% above and beyond the new benefits.”

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USDA also said it would, as directed by the EO, “begin the process of revising the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) to better reflect the cost of a healthy basic diet today.” That plan, used to determine SNAP benefits, “is out of date with the economic realities most struggling households face when trying to buy and prepare healthy food,” the department said. “As a result, the benefits may fall short of what a healthy, adequate diet costs for many households today, especially in high cost of living areas.”

The Center for Budget Policy Priorities, where Dean served as vice president for food assistance policy before joining the department, says that while the TFP “meets many science-based nutritional recommendations, it falls short of nutritional guidelines for vitamin E, potassium, and sodium. Moreover, it doesn’t account for a range of dietary restrictions, and it doesn’t cover medically necessary dietary needs for relatively common conditions like lactose intolerance or diabetes.”

According to USDA, Biden is calling on Congress to extend the 15% SNAP benefit increase included in the latest COVID relief bill beyond June 30 and:

  • "Invest another $3 billion through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to help vulnerable mothers and kids get the food they need;
  • "Look for creative ways to support restaurants as a critical link in the food supply chain to help feed families in need;
  • "Provide U.S. territories with $1 billion in additional nutrition assistance funding."

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