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​Actions Taken to Address COVID-19 Related Food Insecurity

The Wolf Administration has taken the following actions to address regulatory concerns related to food distribution and access, invest in programs and resources that encourage food security, collaborate with public and private partners, make it easier for people to find support, and support the food industry.

Through these actions, we aim to promote, improve access to, and enhance the quality of available resources while empowering the workforce at every level. 


Removing Barriers to Distribution and Access

Increase flexibility and reduce oversight of charitable food distribution network

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture received approval from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to implement the Disaster Household Distribution program, easing the process for distributing food secured through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). This ensures that those seeking assistance from food banks and those critically in need of food will no longer need to complete cumbersome paperwork and income verification requirements to prove that they are eligible for the food. It also allows food banks to push out more food that they have on hand to try and meet the needs while awaiting federal funds to flow through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unemployment compensation, and other support programs.

The Department of Agriculture also applied for and received an extension of the Disaster Household Distribution program due to ongoing need.

The Department of Agriculture also administers the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP), which provides cash grants to counties for the purchase and distribution of food to low-income individuals. From April 1, 2020 through June 30, 2020, the Department of Agriculture will refrain from requiring compliance with or otherwise enforcing the SFPP income-related eligibility requirements, including enforcing any contractual provisions requiring adherence to this regulatory eligibility standard, to allow for increased flexibility.


Retool school meal programs as take-home feeding programs or offer through other community distribution mechanisms
The Pennsylvania Department of Education received approval from the USDA to allow schools to distribute meals at no cost while closed due to COVID-19. Availability of meals and distribution sites vary by county. From March 15, 2020 to April 11, 2020, Pennsylvania's nearly 2,000 school feeding sites distributed 5,116,543 meals. In addition, the Department of Education secured a federal waiver allowing school feeding programs to offer half gallons of milk to children receiving free lunch.

Allow for increased flexibility for soup kitchens to provide meals in non-congregate formats
The Department of Agriculture has also provided direction to soup kitchens preparing meals using TEFAP foods, providing flexibility and allowing them to provide alternatives to congregate meals, such as take-out or curb-side pick-up.   

Allow for increased flexibility for senior centers to provide meals in non-congregate formats
The Pennsylvania Department of Aging is supporting and providing direction to the Area Agencies on Aging network in the delivery of alternate services. Senior centers have made arrangements to provide alternatives to congregate meals, such as takeout, curbside pickup, or they have established a system to deliver meals to senior center participants.  Older adults are encouraged to call their local Area Agency on Aging to request connection with  meals.

Maximize impact of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps families, older adults, and individuals pay for groceries. Benefits are loaded onto an EBT card, which can then be used to purchase food at grocery stores, supermarkets, some farmers markets, and other stores that accept SNAP. All SNAP applications are reviewed for expedited service. Those eligible for expedited service have benefits issued in five days. Pennsylvanians can apply for SNAP online. SNAP benefits provide food security, stimulate local economies, and support farmers and the agriculture industry through the purchases of Pennsylvania-grown and processed foods. 

Certification Periods
Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the federal Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) approved the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services' request to extend certification periods for households receiving SNAP benefits with renewal dates in March, April, or May 2020. This ensures continuity of benefits for anyone currently on SNAP who misses a deadline for any reason during this emergency. 

Emergency SNAP
The Department of Human Services is also issuing emergency SNAP payments that will increase a household's current monthly payment up to the maximum benefit allowed for each household size. These emergency payments are for March and April and will be distributed as a one-time issuance distributed on a staggered schedule that begin on April 11 and continued through April 29.

The Department of Human Services recently received information from FNS that these payments can continue until the emergency ends.  The department plans to issue emergency allotments monthly to ensure recipients receive the maximum monthly benefit. 

Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer
The Department of Human Services and Department of Education also submitted a state plan to FNS that would provide SNAP to students who are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program. This program, known as Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT), is temporary and is designed to bridge the gap left by schools closing due to the COVID-19 crisis.

If approved by the USDA, this state plan would allow for the Department of Human Services to provide P-EBT to households with children who have temporarily lost access to free or reduced-price school meals through the National School Lunch Program due to pandemic-related school closures. P-EBT benefits would be issued through EBT cards issued to qualifying families. As requested, this benefit would be calculated for the remainder of the school year, leading to an approximate benefit of $365 per child. 

The Department of Human Services has determined that approximately 680,000 students who receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch throughout the school year are eligible for P-EBT based on current participation in SNAP or Medicaid. Additionally, students who otherwise qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches will qualify for P-EBT if approved. All told, P-EBT would allow the Department of Human Services to provide funds to cover the cost of breakfast and lunch for approximately 958,000 Pennsylvania school-aged children.

Continued Advocacy
On April 27, Governor Wolf wrote to the congressional delegation and the USDA to advocate for further action to ensure access to SNAP to those who need it now and during the recovery months that lie ahead. In his correspondence, the Governor requested permission to:

    • Issue an additional benefit equal to 50 percent of a household's monthly payment to all SNAP households;
    • Waive SNAP college student eligibility criteria to ensure that families with a student home from college can receive additional benefits to feed the whole family during the COVID-19 emergency;
    • Allow Pennsylvanians to self-attest to reductions in income due to the COVID-19 health emergency, just as self-attestation has been allowed for several other programs.
    • Expand flexibility to exclude Pandemic Unemployment Compensation from the SNAP grant benefit calculation, since counting these payments puts some families who have experienced job loss just over the income threshold making them ineligible or reducing their monthly allotment if they are still eligible.

Work continues to secure these authorizations.

Investing in Food Security

Provide financial assistance to food banks to help meet increased budgetary demands
Governor Tom Wolf announced nearly $16 million in funding to support Pennsylvania food banks that are providing critical assistance to Pennsylvanians during the COVID-19 health crisis. This includes $3.75 million in TEFAP money to cover administrative costs, $11.4 million in USDA Foods, and $1 million in emergency state funding for food and supplies through the Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with PEMA.

In addition, Pennsylvania will receive $16,783,604 from the CARES Act -- $11,151,522 in food and $5,632,082 in administrative funding. The administrative funding is restricted by being used to "prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus."

Additionally, the Department of Environmental Protection's new Food Recovery Infrastructure Grant Program offers grants of up to $200,000 to eligible nonprofit organizations to purchase equipment like refrigerators, freezers, and refrigerant vehicles in an effort to provide resources for additional food to be moved through the charitable food system. 

Access additional federal funding to support the WIC program
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) offers nutritional assistance for pregnant women, nursing women, postpartum women, and infants and children younger than five. Benefits can be used for approved grocery items at stores that accept WIC.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act allocated $500 million to WIC nationwide. Because the funds were allocated into the Nutritional Services Administration line and not specifically assigned for COVID-19 response or recovery, the funds must go through the funding formula, which makes them inaccessible to the states.

The Department of Health, in conjunction with the National WIC Association, has been advocating for changes to be made to the legislation so that this important funding could be rolled out to the states as quickly as possible. If approved, the Department of Health would use Pennsylvania's share of the funds to increase the ability of our statewide nutritionists to do assessments on new applications, which would help get benefits to those in need in a more timely manner.  


Fully utilize the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS) Program
The Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS) program provides an efficient mechanism for PA's agricultural industry to donate safe, wholesome food products while being reimbursed for the costs involved in harvesting, processing, packaging, and transporting these foods. By forging the connections between production agriculture and the non-profit sector, we are able to get more nutritious food into the hands of Pennsylvanians at risk of hunger while reducing waste. 

Collaborating with Public and Private Partners

Operationalize PA's emergency Feeding Task Force
The state's Feeding Task Force brings together state agencies, charitable food networks, business partners, federal partners, and other local partners to determine where food needs are, how many meals are needed, how food is getting to people, and how supplies and donations can be allocated to meet feeding needs across Pennsylvania. 

PEMA is also in close communication with county emergency management personnel regarding the reportage of essential information, including those related to food security needs.

Establish innovative partnerships to address the lack of consumer-sized goods in the food supply chain
Operation BBQ Relief harnesses the power of shuttered restaurants, available restaurant workers, and available commercial sized food product to produce family-style meals to support people in need. In Phase 1, the Feeding Task Force is partnering with the Salvation Army and Operation BBQ Relief to distribute 720,000 meals over the course of four weeks across the state. Those needing assistance can contact their local Salvation Army Corps Center for information on upcoming distributions. In Phase 2, meal production will triple to support the unprecedented needs of Pennsylvania's food banks. 

The Feeding Task Force is also coordinating the delivery of nearly 682,728 individual shelf-stable meals from the Defense Logistics Agency to charitable food networks and feeding programs, including home-delivered meal programs for seniors and food pantries, across Pennsylvania based on need identified through surveying feeding partners. The National Guard is the primary transporter of these meals.

Working to Improve Awareness of Resources

Cross-reference individuals with related need to existing resources
Pennsylvania has created and continues to update the Responding to COVID-19 Guide as a comprehensive list of information and available supports.

The Feeding Task Force developed the Access to Food survey to identify areas of high need. If participants note that they are in need of food and agree to be contacted, they receive a follow-up email with more information on available resources.

As more than 1.6 million Pennsylvanians have applied for Unemployment Compensation, this process has been identified as a high touchpoint for individuals who may also be facing food security concerns. In response, email and print correspondence in both English and Spanish were developed to connect applicants with other resources that may be available for them at this time.

Pennsylvania has also partnered with United Way 211 to connect people with immediate need to assistance in their community, specifically through 211's self-serve online resource database and text line (text zip code to 898-211). People can also dial 2-1-1 for support, though call centers are experiencing high call volumes and wait times are longer than normal. The United Way has also produced a guide to PA COVID-19 Resources that offers links to resources related to housing, utilities, food, federal stimulus, financial assistance, employment, and more. 


Increasing Volunteerism

Volunteer efforts to distribute meals and other life-sustaining services in Pennsylvania are considered an essential activity, even with a statewide Stay-at-Home Order in place.

The charitable food system is supported by a foundation of tens of thousands of volunteers who generously give of their time week after week to ensure that no one in Pennsylvania ever has to wonder where their next meal is coming from. Because of increased need, as well as health concerns among many members of the traditional volunteer base, more volunteers are needed to help buttress the system. The Department of Agriculture provided guidance to food banks to safely continue operations and protect the public, volunteers, and staff. Community feeding guidance was also developed to protect those attending and working at community feeding locations throughout the commonwealth.

The Feeding Task Force also engages with the Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster and SERVPA to identify volunteer capabilities that exist and connect them with needs that arise around the state.

First Lady Frances Wolf has called for healthy Pennsylvanians to consider volunteering to help those who need it, reminding them to follow all safety precautions while doing so. 


CONCLUSION

Pennsylvania is well situated to meet the increased demand for food assistance and support throughout the commonwealth, and we must continue to utilize available data, collaborate with public and private partners, and stay nimble to ensure that no one is going hungry during the COVID-19 epidemic.

This public health crisis has highlighted the importance of our essential agriculture industry for providing a safe, continuous food supply – and that our recovery and national security are impossible without it. It has also emphasized the importance of strengthening the wrap-around supports for individuals to ensure that all needs are met.

As we move forward, we all must continue to work together to build a new commonwealth. Governor Wolf has outlined a plan for relief, reopening, and recovery that will keep Pennsylvanians alive, repair the damage this virus has caused across Pennsylvania, and help us emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever.