Sep. 10 2020

How States Expanded Federal Anti-Hunger Program During the Pandemic

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture allowed states new leeway to expand access to the  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), an anti-hunger program for eligible low-income families. Scholars at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and the University of Miami School of Medicine developed the COVID-19 SNAP Waiver Database to provide a rigorous and standardized analysis of the policy levers states employed to address growing  food insecurity. More information is available at CovidSNAP.org.

Waivers have allowed states to issue emergency supplements that increase benefit amounts, and provide food benefits to children who normally receive free or reduced-priced school meals. Further, waivers allow states to make adjustments to a variety of workflows—application processing, quality control, fair hearing, establishing claims, and revising requirements for call centers. In all, the federal government approved 370 waivers and denied 80 waivers across all states between March and June 2020.

While all 50 states and Washington, DC, were granted waivers to expand SNAP, some states applied for more waivers than others. During the same time period, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island were using the greatest number of waivers; North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Wyoming, were using the least number of waivers. These and other state-level differences can be seen on an online map.

To build the database, the researchers monitored and analyzed state policies and related documents between March 13 and June 30, extracting data,coding administrative memos, to identify variation in responses across states. The project was co-led by Nicky Tettamanti, a master’s student in epidemiology at Columbia Mailman and Catherine Zaw, a medical resident and master of public health at the University of  Miami Miller School of Medicine. Additional contributors include David Bronstein, Lauren Battle, and Celine Toder at Columbia Mailman; Janet Li, University of Southern California; Shayna Korol, Brandies University; and David Fluharty, University of British Columbia.

“During the pandemic, there has been a growing threat of hunger and food insecurity rooted in job loss and school closures,” says senior researcher Sara Abiola, PhD, JD, assistant professor of health policy and management at Columbia Mailman School and a public health law expert. “Our goal with this project was to make critical information about food assistance policy more readily available to the public and policymakers when so many different waiver options were under consideration.”