COVID-19 Pandemic-Era Nutrition Assistance: Impact And Sustainability

A comprehensive public and private sector response to economic hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic likely helped mitigate an increase in food insecurity and its associated health consequences. Many temporary relief measures should be extended until policymakers can determine which changes should be made permanent as part of the next Farm Bill.

The Issue

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred a far-reaching federal policy response that likely mitigated an increase in food insecurity in some U.S. populations.

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States, it became a stress test for the ability of the nation to feed those in need. As unemployment grew, work hours declined and schools were closed, some people could no longer access or afford food and other necessities. Early in the pandemic, a record number of households, including those with nearly 14 million children, reported not having enough to eat, with Black and Latino households being more severely affected than their White and Asian counterparts.

The federal policy response to food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic took three forms:

  • Expansion of existing programs that generally made more people eligible or provided more money conditional on eligibility: for example increasing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit, the SNAP fruit and vegetable benefit and SNAP eligibility as well as increasing the fruit and vegetable benefit in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
  • Flexibilities in ongoing programs, changing how people accessed support: for example: allowing school meal consumption at home, allowing parents and guardians to pick up meals without a child present, and allowing delivery of meals to homes or along school bus routes; removing the enrollment interview requirement for SNAP and adjusting recertification requirements; and, eliminating the in-person requirement for collecting WIC benefits.   
  • Rapid development of new programs that offered novel experiments in nutrition assistance programming: for example, the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Program which gave emergency benefits to parents to purchase food for children who were eligible for school meals but missed them because of school closures and The Emergency Food Assistance Program will provide up to $400 million to state, tribal, and local partners to buy nutritious food from local and regional farmers,

There is evidence (e.g., from Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement data) that these changes helped to quell an increase in food insecurity, which often leads to other adverse health consequences.

What’s Next

Alarming disparities in food insecurity emerged early in the pandemic and have persisted, with higher rates seen among Black households (20%) compared with White households (8%) in January 2021.

Many of these relief measures are ending, even as new COVID-19 variants emerge and the economic recovery remains uneven. The pandemic policy response suggests promising approaches for increasing food security in the post-COVID-19 era. A longer-term extension of many COVID-19 policy supports until the next Farm Bill is adopted in 2023 or later would offer stability until discussions can occur around which changes should be made permanent.

To inform upcoming legislation, including the Child Nutrition Reauthorization and the 2023 Farm Bill, researchers recommend that policymakers:

  • Evaluate the implementation and impact of pandemic assistance programs to identify which ones should be sustained, refined, or expanded.
  • Federal nutrition assistance programs should maintain broader eligibility criteria, streamlined enrollment processes and expanded options
  • Increase food assistance benefit levels which fall short of household food needs
  • Continue to support programs that incentivize the purse of healthy food particularly fruits and vegetables
  • Restore and build on the 2010 federal nutrition standards, and work to explore schools’ expanded role in providing high-quality food year-round to students and families.

Preliminary evidence shows if many of the programs’ expansions, flexibilities, and new programming developed in response to the pandemic are continued, these changes could help address the structural forces that create food insecurity in the first place.