UPDATE: Pennsylvania received approval late on March 27 to operate a Disaster Household Distribution program through the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program. The state announced the waiver approval March 28.
The program waives the need for people to complete income eligibility paperwork and allows USDA commodity foods to be included in distributions to families impacted by COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
Food banks facing overwhelming demand are being hamstrung by bureaucratic red tape, officials said.
“What we want is complete elimination and administrative release of paperwork we have to do to verify eligibility for services,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
Hamler-Fugitt and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf want the U.S. Department of Agriculture to waive eligibility requirements for the Emergency Food Assistance Program during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program makes commodity food available to state food distribution agencies. That food then goes to local agencies to distribute to families in need.
“Any other time we do it, we’re proud to do it,” Hamler-Fugitt said, of the eligibility verification and reporting requirements. “What we’re asking for is temporary relief… The requirement of this information is putting our volunteers, our staff and the very Ohioans who need this food at risk.”
Wolf sent a letter March 26 to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asking him to waive the food assistance eligibility requirement, with power he has under the president’s national disaster declaration.
“It is critical that Pennsylvanians in need have access as quickly as possible, and that the food banks working around the clock can help those in need without the additional burden and delay of completing paperwork and verifying client eligibility,” Wolf wrote in the letter.
Wolf called it “unconscionable” to delay access to food because of “cumbersome paperwork requirements.” He wrote that without action from the USDA, Pennsylvania food banks will not be able to keep up with demand.
This is especially important as more and more people find themselves food insecure after suddenly losing their jobs due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Pennsylvania reported nearly 700,000 new unemployment claims since March 15. Those are unprecedented numbers, Wolf said.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services reported 187,780 new claims for unemployment benefits for the week of March 15-21. The week prior, there were 7,042 new claims reported.
In the letter, Wolf also asked that the USDA be flexible in its interpretation of recent changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and reconsider Pennsylvania’s request for temporary waivers to allow supplies of USDA foods at schools and in state warehouses to be used to feed those in need.
After Hamler-Fugitt read Wolf’s letter, she crafted her own to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine asking him to do the same on behalf of Ohio food banks.
Hamler-Fugitt’s concerns were for the health and safety of the food bank workers and clients. It’s difficult to follow social distancing measures while collecting and processing paperwork in person.
Ohio food banks have already put in place “no-touch” systems to limit person-to-person contact, like using prepackaged bags and boxes and distributing food curbside or through delivery.
Since COVID-19 hit the state, Hamlet-Fugitt said they’ve seen anywhere from 100% to a 500% increase in demand at their food banks statewide.
“People don’t stand in food lines that take four, five, six hours if they don’t need food,” she said.
Ohio’s “Eligibility to Take Food Home” form asks basic information about the applicant, people living in the household and household income. No proof of income is required. In Pennsylvania, the paperwork is called the “Self-Declaration of Need” form.
Hamler-Fugitt said she made the request herself for a waiver, but was told the USDA doesn’t have the legislative authority to waive eligibility requirements.
The USDA Food and Nutrition Service approved a number of waivers for school nutrition programs, WIC and SNAP, including allowing states to conduct phone interviews instead of face-to-face interviews for SNAP quality control purposes.
Under normal circumstances, they are glad to do the necessary paperwork and reporting that goes with it, she said.
“But these aren’t normal times,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “All we’re asking for is administrative release during a pandemic.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or email@example.com.)
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