September 19, 2016

The Vital Importance of Disaster-SNAP

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In August 2016, prolonged rainfall in southern Louisiana resulted in catastrophic flooding. The floods were called the worst natural disaster since 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, and Louisiana’s Governor quickly declared a state of emergency. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes. Many are currently living in shelters, and Louisianans are facing damage to their property, lost income, and a lack of insurance.

As families confront wrecked homes and collapsed businesses, additional support is critical, and food banks are overloaded and overwhelmed. Natalie Jayroe, President and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans, tells us: “To date we have distributed more than 800,000 pounds of food, water and cleaning supplies to an estimated 87,000 people in 19 parishes. Given the level of damage and disruption, we anticipate providing heightened levels of support for the next several months.”

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At a time like this, D-SNAP, or “Disaster SNAP,” is a crucial tool to help people who do not normally receive SNAP get back on their feet. D-SNAP is an addendum to the SNAP program that provides short-term food assistance to eligible households who have disaster-related expenses (a disaster-related expense may include temporary housing or personal injury). The benefits are not robust, and only last 30 days, but they do provide an extra dose of support during an emergency situation.

States require authorization for D-SNAP benefits after a natural disaster, and an affected area must have received a Presidential declaration of “Major Disaster” in order to request a D-SNAP. The federal Food and Nutrition Service, or FNS, authorizes states to provide the benefits. In addition to Louisiana, D-SNAP is currently active in California (for people affected by ongoing fires) and Michigan (for people affected by lead water). In the past year, it has been enacted to benefit people affected by catastrophes such as flooding in West Virginia, snow storms in New Mexico, and tornadoes in Missouri.

However, accessing D-SNAP can be difficult. According to advocacy organizations on the ground in Louisiana, D-SNAP offices require that people apply in person, in order to prevent fraud. The offices are scattered, and the long lines make the process especially hard for seniors, people who are disabled, and those who live in rural and remote areas. This places additional burdens on people already struggling to survive, including some of the most vulnerable people affected by the floods. 

In addition, “state agencies face enormous staff shortages when dealing with the disaster surge,” says David Williams, Litigation Director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. In a disaster, state agencies must “add a whole new caseload in essentially a week. Our agency put all hands on deck, including drawing in retired staff to help.”

According to Williams, a realistic solution is “to allow phone interviews on a case by case basis for people in these groups. USDA already permits this in its regular SNAP regulations, but has not yet allowed this with respect to D-SNAP.” This solution would simplify the process and ensure that D-SNAP gets to the people who need it most.

MAZON has already begun efforts to work with USDA to remove these onerous barriers and ensure that D-SNAP meets the vital goals for which it was designed: to ensure that those who have been overwhelmed by disaster do not also have to struggle to buy food.