This article discusses changes in federal food policy following the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the policy options that were created in response to high rates of unemployment and school closures have now sunset. This article discusses the implementation and phase-out of food policy options that were designed to assist households during the pandemic.
Changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
SNAP participation sharply increased with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Figure 1 illustrates the number of households participating in SNAP (in millions) from January 2019 through June 2023. By May 2020, household-level SNAP participation had increased by 16% relative to January 2020. Surprisingly, the number of SNAP households has remained fairly steady, around 22 million, throughout the first half of 2023.
The amount of SNAP benefits each household was awarded also increased in response to the pandemic. A major component of this increase was the introduction of Emergency Allotments (EA benefits) as a policy option within the SNAP program. EA benefits removed the income deduction from the SNAP benefit formula, essentially paying all households the maximum benefit amount given their household size. All states adopted this policy option by April 2020. Figure 2 plots the mean SNAP benefit amount per person over time. Consistent with the time states adopted the policy option, there was a 32% increase in the mean benefit amount between March and April 2020.
Several additional adjustments to SNAP benefit amounts occurred throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 authorized a 15% increase in SNAP benefits beginning in January 2021 and lasting through June 2021 (White House 2021). The American Rescue Plan Act in February 2021 later extended this increase through September 2021 (USDA 2021a). In October 2021, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it had updated the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which it uses to set the amount of food assistance people participating in SNAP receive, to reflect the cost of a healthy diet more accurately (USDA 2021b). The update to the TFP increased the maximum amount of SNAP benefits by 22%, effective in October 2021.
Importantly, EA benefits were only available as a policy option to states so long as the state had an active emergency or disaster declaration in place. As states phased out of having these declarations in place, EA benefits also began to be phased out of the SNAP program. Furthermore, in December of 2022, Congress passed legislation that sunset EA benefits in all states in March 2023 (USDA 2023c).
Figure 3 illustrates the four groups' average SNAP benefit per participant over time. These groups are categorized based on Emergency Allotment (EA) cessation timing, including the first half of 2021, the second half of 2021, 2022, and January to February 2023 (USDA 2023c). The y-axis represents the average SNAP benefit per participant, indicating the mean amount of assistance provided. The x-axis represents the monthly time intervals. The graph demonstrates a noticeable pattern where the average SNAP disbursement per participant decreases in the order of EA cessation. As each group exits the Emergency Allotment program at different time points, there is a corresponding decrease in the average SNAP disbursement per participant.
Since the sunset of EA benefits as a policy option in February of 2023, the SNAP program has largely returned to its pre-pandemic structure with some exceptions. Notably, the ability to utilize SNAP as a form of payment when shopping for groceries online was expanded during COVID-19 and appears now to be a permanent feature of the SNAP program. This is great news, not only for SNAP participants but also for online grocery retailers.
National School Lunch and the School Breakfast Program
In response to school closures and virtual learning formats, considerable changes were also made to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP). The largest change was the introduction of the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT). P-EBT is a temporary program that provides additional food assistance to families with children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals but cannot receive them due to school closures or reduced hours during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act authorized the P-EBT program in March 2020. Since then, P-EBT has been extended and expanded several times. USDA administered the program in collaboration with state agencies and was funded by the federal government.
The P-EBT program provides a one-time benefit to eligible families to cover the cost of meals that children would have received if schools were open. The benefit amount varies by state and is calculated based on the number of days schools were closed due to the pandemic. The benefit is delivered to eligible families through an EBT card, which can be used to purchase food at authorized retailers. The eligibility for P-EBT is determined by the child's eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals based on income and household size. Children who attend schools participating in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) are also eligible for P-EBT.
Due to varying school learning formats, there is considerable variation across school districts in the amount of P-EBT that school-aged children are eligible for. In school year 2020 to 2021 (SY 2020/2021), for example, some schools offered fully remote learning while others implemented a hybrid model with a mix of in-person and remote instruction.
Figure 4 illustrates differences in the estimated P-EBT benefits allocated across different geographical areas.1 Each region is color-coded to indicate the level of P-EBT disbursement, with darker shades representing higher amounts and lighter shades representing lower amounts. This figure demonstrates the pronounced differences in estimated P-EBT disbursement amounts across different regions of the United States.
Summary and conclusions
This article summarizes the implementation and sunset of the temporary policy options within SNAP, NSLP, and the SBP in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Within the SNAP program, COVID-19 policy options greatly expanded benefit amounts and the ability to utilize SNAP benefits as forms of payment when purchasing grocery products online. While the temporary benefit increases have sunset as policy options, the ability to utilize EBT as a form of payment online has remained. Like SNAP, the major changes to NSLP and SBP delivery have also sunset, largely due to schools returning to in-person learning. However, the advent of Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (Summer EBT), a program that pays out EBT benefits during the summer months when school meals are not served, has emerged and is also positioned to become a permanent feature of the food and nutrition assistance landscape (USDA 2023).
1. To estimate the amount of P-EBT for which students are eligible, we use data from the COVID-19 School Data Hub (COVID-19 School Data Hub 2023). Based on the learning model ratio for each school district, we predict school opening days for each school district for each month. Then, we sum up these expected school opening days to get the predicted total school opening days in SY 20–21. Finally, we multiply by $6.84 (NSLP reimbursement rates in SY20–21) to get the anticipated P-EBT benefits for eligible students.
COVID-19 School Data Hub. 2023. District-Monthly Percentage In-Person, Hybrid, or Virtual. Retrieved from https://www.covidschooldatahub.com/.
United States Department of Agriculture. 2021a. SNAP – Extension of Temporary Increase in Maximum Allotments due to COVID-19. Retrieved from https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/Extension-of-Temporary-Increase-in-Maximum-Allotments.
United States Department of Agriculture. 2021b. Thrifty Food Plan, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.fns.usda.gov/cnpp/thrifty-food-plan-2021.
United States Department of Agriculture. 2023a. Guidance for State Implementation of Summer EBT in 2024. Retrieved from https://www.fns.usda.gov/sebt/state-implementation-of-summer-ebt-2024.
United States Department of Agriculture. 2023b. SNAP Data Tables. Retrieved from https://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap.
United States Department of Agriculture. 2023c. SNAP Emergency Allotments are Ending. Retrieved from https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2023/02/08/snap-emergency-allotments-are-ending.
White House. 2021. Fact Sheet: President Biden's New Executive Actions Deliver Economics Relief for American Families and Businesses Amid the COVID-19 Crises. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/01/22/fact-sheet-president-bidens-new-executive-actions-deliver-economic-relief-for-american-families-and-businesses-amid-the-covid-19-crises/.
Harris-Lagoudakis, K., and B. Kim. 2023. "Federal Food Policy Changes following the COVID-19 Pandemic." Agricultural Policy Review Fall 2023. Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, Iowa State University. Available at: https://agpolicyreview.card.iastate.edu/fall-2023/federal-food-policy-changes-following-covid-19-pandemic.