The coronavirus crisis has exposed many faultlines in society. The closing of schools and reliance on distance learning, for example, has laid bare a digital divide that left too many families with no access to basic technology or to the internet — and no access to education.

Another digital divide could have more dire consequences: the inability of those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food stamp benefits to use them to order groceries online. The system isn’t equipped to handle online sales with an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, so food stamp recipients are forced to visit grocery stores and risk exposure to the virus. A pilot program in nine states for online ordering began over a year ago, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet expanded it. Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Casey wants to direct $500 million toward a food delivery program for SNAP recipients. This could be especially critical for elderly or disabled recipients who can’t leave their homes.

The digital divide is just one of many bureaucratic obstacles people are confronting in their attempt to feed themselves.

For example, college students who have been sent home are not being counted as eligible to have benefits increased for their families. Gov. Tom Wolf has identified this as a priority in a letter he sent to the USDA, which oversees the food stamp program, for expanding access to food.

Wolf also is arguing that the USDA should not be counting the temporary increase in unemployment compensation that Congress approved for the next two months, which will disqualify many people from getting nutrition assistance during those months, and requiring a reapplication process that will strain an already burdened system.

When Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, it increased the amount of money for food stamps. But the USDA narrowly interpreted that change, and while increasing more families’ benefits to the maximum allowed, it did not increase the benefits for those already getting the maximum. That effectively left 40% of recipients at the same level. Members of Congress are petitioning for that change. Casey is pushing for an overall increase in SNAP benefits of 15%.

The average monthly food stamp benefit for a family of four is $448, averaging $129 per month per person — about $1.31 per meal. (Advocates are quick to point out that each food stamp dollar equals $1.70 in economic activity, underscoring the importance of food stamps as an economic stimulus.)

The conflicting images of miles of cars lining up at food banks as farmers are dumping produce and milk are striking. The USDA will start buying dairy, produce, and meat from farmers directly to distribute to pantries and food banks. But that should be one of many extraordinary measures and innovations that the USDA should be undertaking to meet this crisis.

The Inquirer participates in Resolve Philadelphia's Broke in Philly reporting collective.
Resolve Philadelphia
The Inquirer participates in Resolve Philadelphia's Broke in Philly reporting collective.

Unfortunately, the current crisis hasn’t seriously altered the resistance many have to helping people who are seriously struggling. In fact, the Trump administration is still pursuing rule changes that would cut many off from SNAP benefits.

This crisis has imperiled the well-being of millions of people. That well-being should not be further undercut by an inability to buy food.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.