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Yvonne Knight, who has respiratory problems that make her especially vulnerable in the coronavirus pandemic, can't buy groceries online with her food stamps — even though each trip to the store is now a risky endeavor.
Going out to buy food terrifies the 38-year-old woman with cerebral palsy, but she is one of millions of people who receive food aid through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that can't be used in flexible ways.
"Every time I go out, I put myself at risk — and other people," said Knight, who lives in Erie, Pennsylvania. "I'm so terrified when people come up to me now. I don't want to go out to the store."
Buying groceries online — which many Americans are doing to drastically reduce how often they leave their homes — is only open to SNAP recipients in six U.S. states, and Pennsylvania is not one of them.
Now, state governments and food security activists across the country are imploring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make the program more flexible and easier to access at a time when so many people are losing their jobs and turning to the government for support.
The calls have even come from conservative states where lawmakers have tried to reduce or limit food aid.
In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has asked the agency to waive interview requirements for applicants, allow families to purchase hot meals, waive work requirements for some and enact other changes that would help families deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Ashley St. Thomas, the public policy manager for the Arizona Food Bank Network, lauded the governor’s request, adding that relaxing requirements that program recipients prove they are working at least some hours each month is “critical right now” — especially as millions get laid off and jobs dry up for people who work in the informal or gig economies.
Amanda Siebe, a 35-year-old who lives in Hillsboro, Oregon, suffers from a chronic pain condition and has a compromised immune system, so she tries to avoid leaving the house.
But she struggles to stretch her SNAP benefit — $194 a month — in normal times, and she would love to have more cash now to be able to buy larger food quantities to limit grocery trips.
"We need food that will not only last the whole month but give us a little bit to stock up so we can get ahead without having to worry what’s gonna happen in the future," Siebe said. "Especially because the majority of us cannot leave the house very often."
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and can lead to death — meaning those people need to take special precautions.
The increased need for food aid and calls to make it more flexible come directly on the heels of a stalled Trump administration attempt to purge an estimated 700,000 people from SNAP rolls. The changes would have taken away states' ability to waive a rule that able-bodied adults without dependents show a certain number of hours worked per month. A court blocked the changes, and the USDA vowed to appeal.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue now says he's undecided and notes that the congressional virus relief package contains a blanket waiver on the work requirement — though the agency seems likely to revisit the issue in calmer times.
For now, with large parts of the economy shuttered, state governments are clamoring to expand the recipient ranks and cut the red tape.
In Pennsylvania, where Knight lives, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday asked the agency to waive several requirements. He urged the federal government to expand a pilot program launched in New York and Washington state that allows people to use their debit-style benefit cards to order online groceries. Amazon and Walmart now accept SNAP payments online in Iowa, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington and New York, where ShopRite also accepts the payments. In Alabama, Wright’s Markets, Inc. accepts the online payments.
In Missouri, the state’s social services department requested and was granted waivers to extend SNAP certifications by six months so that people won’t be kicked out of the program during the pandemic.
Food security advocates recommend the government go further, giving states blanket latitude to adjust their programs.
That would allow states to expand their beneficiary ranks with minimal paperwork, said Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research and Action Center.
"One can imagine a set of waivers that are so common that every state would benefit,” she said.
Among the specific changes she recommends: eliminating the personal interview that precedes a recipient's entry into the program — as Arizona's governor requested — and allowing a recipient's status in the program to automatically renew without paperwork.
The built-in flexibility of the program has proved vital in natural disasters that devastated individual cities or regions — and activists argue that SNAP benefits could be one of the core instruments used to help Americans endure a pandemic hitting the whole country at once.
"The benefits turn over quickly in the economy. They get spent," Vollinger said.