USDA Is Denying Food Assistance to PA Families Who Need It Most, Lawsuit Says

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By Elle Meyers

July 21, 2020

“It was very hard to get by even before the pandemic hit, but it is even harder now.”

Some of Pennsylvania’s poorest families were denied food assistance when the federal government capped the benefits low-income families receive, a new lawsuit alleges.

The complaint, brought by the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) and Morgan Lewis, alleges that the USDA, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), misinterpreted regulations in the government’s first coronavirus relief package. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed in March and was designed to provide emergency food stamp benefits to families during the pandemic and subsequent economic shutdowns.  

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that the USDA improperly capped food stamp benefits for low-income Pennsylvanians. This means that some families received very little or no additional money at all. 

“It was very hard to get by even before the pandemic hit, but it is even harder now,” said plaintiff Latoya Gilliam in a statement. “I need extra SNAP so my two-year-old son and I can get by during the pandemic.” 

Gilliam and her co-plaintiff Kayla McCrobie both have experienced food insecurity. 

“I sometimes don’t have enough food, and skip meals. I am feeling the health effects of that,” McCrobie said in a statement

Nearly 40% of Pennsylvania SNAP households, including many elderly people, families with young children, and people with disabilities, currently receive no emergency SNAP at all due to the USDA’s violation of the law,” attorneys wrote in a statement. 

Even under normal circumstances, they explained, SNAP benefits are slim and families often struggle to afford healthy food. However, the situation became even more dire when the pandemic hit and food prices increased more than they have in a month for the last 46 years, according to attorneys

As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports, Pennsylvania asked the federal government to allow the state to give SNAP beneficiaries additional funds, but the USDA denied the request. In total, more than 1.9 million residents in Pennsylvania receive food assistance and enrollment in SNAP increased by 9.7% in the commonwealth between February and May this year. 

During the first three months of the pandemic, six million more Americans signed up for federal assistance, bringing the total number of SNAP enrollees to more than 43 million. Had the Trump administration had its way and cut SNAP benefits in April, nearly a million people would have faced the one-two-punch of food insecurity during a pandemic.

“It is unconscionable that the poorest families in Pennsylvania are being denied emergency allotments because of the USDA’s unlawful position,” said Louise Hayes who serves as lead attorney for CLS. “Congress cannot have intended to give substantial help to the least-poor of the poor, while denying help altogether to the most poor.”

In mid-May, the Democratic-led House of Representatives passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act, which includes a large-scale increase in domestic hunger funding. Since then, however, the Republican-controlled Senate has refused to consider the bill.


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