Sanders: Hunger and nutrition assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Sanders: Hunger and nutrition assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic

Mon, 05/25/2020 - 5:12am -- tim

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) First and foremost, I believe that no one in this country should go hungry — ever. This is especially true during the current emergency, when so many people are struggling. Hunger is a growing crisis across the country and Vermont is no exception.

Before the pandemic hit the U.S., 3.5 percent of Americans were unemployed and 37 million Americans struggled to put food on the table. In April of this year, 14.7 percent of Americans were unemployed and so many cannot afford food that 98 percent of foodbanks have seen an increase in demand.

Here in Vermont, 25 percent of people responded to an April survey saying they are experiencing food insecurity — a 33 percent increase just in the first month of this crisis. Nutrition programs and food shelves throughout the state are seeing huge increases in the numbers of Vermonters seeking help, many for the first time.

Congress has so far passed two bills that include provisions to help Americans feed their families: the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (known as "Families First") and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

I’m very grateful that the State of Vermont and partners like Hunger Free Vermont and the Vermont Foodbank are working hard to take advantage of the funding and flexibilities included in these laws to feed as many Vermonters as possible. However, we still have a lot of work to do to provide food to all who need it.

For starters, we have got to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known in Vermont as 3SquaresVT. That is why I cosponsored the Closing the Meal Gap Act to permanently increase SNAP benefit levels.

I've also asked Senators McConnell and Schumer to increase SNAP benefit levels (read the letter here) and expand food access options for college students (read the letter here). I have also asked Secretary Purdue to improve access to child nutrition programs, including making it easier for our kids to get needed food through the school lunch and summer meals programs (read the letter here).

Additionally, I am pleased to have worked with Senator Leahy and Congressman Welch to ask Secretary Purdue to use his authority to purchase dairy products, which would provide Vermonters with nutritious food options while also helping our struggling Vermont dairy farmers (read the letter here).

Finally, I am pleased to have fought for, and won, an expansion of online delivery options for SNAP participants (read the letter here), which Vermont is starting to implement now. 

Please know that I will continue working to expand funding and flexibility to schools, food shelves, and other anti-hunger organizations to help them respond to this current health and economic crisis. In the richest country in the history of the world, no one should worry about where their next meal is coming from.

Please find more information below about federal and state efforts addressing hunger that are available to you and your family. And if you need assistance with any of these programs, you can call my office at 802-862-0697 and a member of my staff will be happy to help. 

 

What You Need to Know about Federal Actions to Address Hunger 

Families First and CARES helped address hunger by:

  • Adding $850 million for the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).
  • Providing $1.2 billion in funding for Aging and Disability Services Programs, which includes senior nutrition programs like Meals on Wheels
  • Authorizing state waivers to administer the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program, child nutrition programs, and SNAP in a safe, socially distant way by
    • Suspending work requirements
    • Delaying re-certification deadlines for 6 months. 
    • Providing all SNAP households with the maximum monthly benefit.
  • Authorizing states' plans to implement the Pandemic SNAP or Pandemic-Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) for children who would normally receive free or reduced-price lunch in school.
  • Granting the USDA authority to partner with local distributors to provide the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. 
 

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/3SquaresVT)

SNAP, referred to as 3SquaresVT here in Vermont, is the most important and effective federal nutrition program for combating hunger. If your financial situation has changed due to COVID-19 — if you or someone in your household has lost wages, or seen an increase in care expenses — you may be eligible to receive 3SquaresVT. Families receive EBT cards, which are used like a debit card, to help purchase food each month.

How to Apply:

  • Apply online at https://dcf.vermont.gov/mybenefits or call 1-800-479-6151
    • You can request a paper application by calling the number listed above. Upon completing, make a copy for your records and send it to:
      • DCF/Economic Services Division, Application and Document Processing,      280 State Drive, Waterbury, VT, 05671-1020
  • Submit verification documentation online through DCF-ESD's document uploader here, either by scanning documentation, or taking pictures of the documents and uploading them into the system. 
  • Need help with your application? To get help applying dial 2-1-1 or text 'VFBSNAP' to 855-11
    • If you are 60 or older, call the Senior Helpline at 1-800-642-5119 for personalized assistance.
  • NOTE: Due to social distancing, Department of Children and Families is asking that people not apply in person at this time. 
 

Frequently Asked Questions:

Who is eligible to receive 3SquaresVT benefits?

Those with a household income equal to or less than 185% of the federal poverty level (FPL) are eligible to receive 3Squares— that would be under $893 per week for a family of four. 

Households with someone over the age of 60 with a disability, but have an income over 185% of FPL, may still qualify.

Lastly, households that have children and receive the Vermont Earned Income Tax Credit are eligible.

 

How much will my 3SquaresVT benefit be?

If you are eligible, the monthly benefit you receive will be dependent on your household size, income, and expenses. The average monthly benefit per household is around $235.

 

How will I receive the monthly benefit?

If anyone in your household is under 65, you will receive your benefit on an EBT card, which is used like a debit card to buy eligible food items.

If everyone in your household is 65 or older or receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), your benefit will be deposited as cash into your bank account.

 

Will my 3SquaresVT benefit increase during this time?

Due to the CARES Act, all households that receive SNAP will temporarily receive the maximum monthly benefit. No action is required on your part — you will automatically get the increased benefit the same way you currently receive your benefits. Households that already receive the maximum benefit, will not see an increase. Learn more here: https://dcf.vermont.gov/press-releases/5-21-20

 

Will the federal economic impact payments count as income when I apply for 3SquaresVT?

No, the stimulus payments, $1,200 per adult and $500 per child, are lump sum payments and DO NOT count as income or a resource when applying. 

 

I am receiving Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits — will this count as income when I apply for 3SquaresVT?

Yes, recurring UI benefits, including the federal $600 boost in weekly benefits, DO count as income when applying. 

However, one-time, retroactive UI benefits that were received as a lump payment DO NOT count as income. 

 

I am concerned about going into a store to use my EBT card. Are there any online or call-in purchase options for food?

Yes. There will be options for online and call-in purchases so you can use your EBT for delivery or curbside pick-up. The Vermont Department of Children and Families is working with retailers and by late May will have an initial list of participating retailers.

 

Do farmers markets and farm stands accept EBT?

Yes, many Vermont farmers' markets accept EBT. A full list of markets can be found here: https://nofavt.org/find-organic-local-food/farmers-markets, and farm stands here: https://nofavt.org/find-organic-local-food/farm-stands

 

Do coupons exist for farmers markets? 

Yes. Vermont has two programs for farmers' market coupons:

  • Crop Cash coupons: Provides Vermonters currently receiving 3SquaresVT funds to turn $10 of their 3SquaresVT into $20 in food every time they visit the farmers market. It’s a double coupon for fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, seeds, and starts. This program will start on June 1st this year.
  • Farm to Family coupons: Qualifying households may receive $30 in Farm to Family coupons that can be used to buy locally-grown, fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and fresh-cut herbs at participating farmers markets and farm stands. Normally these are distributed at WIC and community action offices. However, DCF is working out a plan in case these offices are not fully open this summer.
 

Emergency Food Assistance

If you or someone you know is struggling to put food on the table, call 2-1-1 for more information about nutrition assistance programs and local food shelves available in Vermont. You may also call the Vermont Foodbank at 1-800-585-2265.

Upcoming Food Distribution

The Vermont National Guard partnered with the Foodbank to distribute nearly 600,000 meals to Vermonters in need in April and early May. 

Two Vermont organizations, The Abby Group and Willing Hands Enterprises, received $5.5 million in USDA contracts to distribute Farmers to Families Food Boxes. The Abby Group is working with the Foodbank and the National Guard to distribute these local food boxes. If you need food, go to the following locations from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m

  • May 26: Chittenden County — Burlington Area TBD
  • May 27: Windham County — 131 Fairground Rd, Brattleboro 
  • May 28: Franklin County — 629 Airport Rd, Swanton
  • May 29: Caledonia County — 2107 Pudding Hill Rd, Lyndonville

Anyone is welcome to pick up food. Each household member can either receive one box of non-perishable food, or each household can receive a box of local food, including 2 gallons of Vermont milk, one 20-pound box of cooked chicken, one large box of assorted fresh produce, and one box of Cabot dairy products. 

Visitors will pull up in their car, open their trunk, and the National Guard will load the appropriate amount of food. 

Be sure to check the Vermont Foodbank’s website in advance of your area’s pickup day for any last minute changes, here.

School Meals

If your family has children ages 18 and under, you can access free school meals from your school district despite schools being closed due to COVID-19. Federal legislation and action by the State of Vermont has created flexibility for all families to access these meals. Contact your local school district or 2-1-1 to determine the best way to receive meals locally. 

Families First created the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program, a supplemental food purchasing program to provide nutritional resources to families while schools are closed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently approved Vermont to offer P-EBT, which will provide $14 million to 48,000 Vermont children this year. P-EBT provides households an EBT card with money equal to the free school breakfast and lunch reimbursement rates for the days that schools are closed.

 

Frequently Asked Questions:

Do I need to fill out an application to receive school meals? 

No paperwork is needed to receive meals. 

However, submitting an application helps schools continue to offer these meals during this uncertain time. The information gathered from the Free & Reduced Price Meal Applications determines the funding the state of Vermont receives to provide school, summer and afterschool meals and the new Pandemic-EBT program. Contact your school to fill out the paperwork. 

For help completing the application visit this site.

 

Who is eligible for P-EBT?

Eligible households include children who are certified to receive free and reduced-priced school meals and children who attend schools that offer free school meals to all students, and/or current SNAP (3SquaresVT) participants whose schools have been closed for five consecutive days due to the public health emergency.

If your finances have changed, you may qualify for P-EBT. Contact your child’s school to fill out the Free and Reduced Lunch Application.

 

What electronic benefit will my family receive through P-EBT?

Families with eligible children will receive the value of free meals through P-EBT for the length of time school has been closed. The daily total is $5.70. Vermont has determined that the total benefit will be $387.60 per eligible child

 

How will I receive the P-EBT benefit?

For households that currently get 3SquaresVT, the additional benefit will be added to your EBT card by May 27th. 

Other households that do not receive 3SquaresVT will be issued special P-EBT cards, and should receive them in the mail by May 27th. 

 

How can I use this P-EBT benefit?

You can use your P-EBT benefit to buy eligible foods anywhere 3SquaresVT is accepted. Find a list of eligible food items here. The benefit will not expire for a year after the date it is issued.

Find the Vermont Department of Children & Families P-EBT FAQ sheet here.

 

Will schools serve meals this summer?

The Agency of Education, school districts, and Hunger Free Vermont are working with schools and communities to identify ways to feed kids over the summer. For more information about where your child can access meals this summer, please visit Hunger Free Vermont’s summer meal site, here.

 

Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC)

The WIC program provides healthy food, nutrition education, breastfeeding support, and resources to women, children, and families. If your income has been affected due to the current crisis, and you are pregnant or have a child under five, WIC can help provide nutritious foods and resources to keep your family healthy.

How to Apply:

  • Apply online here: https://www.healthvermont.gov/children-youth-families/wic/apply
  • Or text "VTWIC" to 855-11
  • Completing the application is the first step to enroll in WIC. Your eligibility is determined during an appointment with WIC nutrition staff. 
    • Right now, the requirement to be physically present during your appointment has been waived. These appointments are occurring over the phone.
  • For more information call 1-800-464-4343
 

Frequently Asked Questions:

Who is eligible for WIC benefits?

Pregnant people, new parents, infants and children up to age five with a household income under $893 per week for family of four can enroll in WIC.

Vermonters who receive Medicaid, Dr. Dynasaur, 3SquaresVT/SNAP, or Reach-Up are automatically income-eligible and can apply. 

Foster parents and grandparents can apply for children under their care.

 

How do I receive the food benefits from the WIC program?

Each family member enrolled in the program receives a monthly food package. Approved WIC foods are added to your WIC card the 1st of the month, on a 3-month cycle, after completing a WIC appointment or nutrition activity. You card, used like a debit card, can be used to buy WIC foods at the grocery story.

 

What if I can’t find approved WIC supplemental foods in the grocery store?

Due to waivers and flexibilities provided in the federal relief bills, WIC has expanded its approved foods list to make it easier to find foods during this time of increased demand. These changes include larger bread loaf sizes, more varieties of eggs, and shredded cheese. See the expanded food list here.

 

How are WIC services affected by COVID-19?

WIC services, including new enrollments, breastfeeding support, and nutrition education are being provided by phone.

 

Senior Meals 

To find information about meal delivery programs for seniors, like Meals on Wheels, contact the Senior Helpline at 1-800-642-5119, or visit: https://www.vermont4a.org/meals-nutrition

SNAP (3squaresVT) is also critically important in addressing senior hunger, as well as the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). The CSFP program provides older adults with a box of staple foods each month, which can be picked up at a local food shelf.

  • To apply for SNAP benefits (3squaresVT), call 1-800-479-6151 or click here: https://dcf.vermont.gov/mybenefits
  • To sign up for CSFP, contact the Vermont Food Bank at 1-800-214-4648, or call 2-1-1 to learn about emergency food assistance available to you and to find a local food shelf. 

This is a very dangerous and frightening moment for all of us, but especially our seniors. As older Vermonters are asked to continue to stay home, many need help with basic necessities and far too many are facing isolation and loneliness, which can be life-threatening. Before this crisis, nearly 9.5 million seniors faced the threat of hunger. As the coronavirus pandemic threatens to increase food insecurity among our most vulnerable populations, we must ensure that seniors who rely on home-delivered and congregate meals still have access to the nutrition they need to stay healthy. 

Quality senior nutrition programs are more important than ever, and I will continue to fight to make sure that these programs are fully funded and available to all Americans who need them. For more information and help for older Vermonters, visit the Vermont Area Agencies on Aging site here: https://dcf.vermont.gov/partners/aaa.

 

We must prioritize the health and economic wellbeing of Vermont’s working families — particularly our most vulnerable community members. Everyone must have the income, healthy food, safe shelter, child care, workplace leave, and cost-free medical testing and treatment that they need right now. To everyone who is working tirelessly to provide food to Vermonters in need right now — know that your efforts are deeply appreciated. No one in America should go hungry during this devastating crisis. Full stop.

My office is here to help — do not hesitate to contact us should you need assistance by phone at 802-862-0697 or 1-800-339-9834, or on our website.