Maryland residents’ enrollment in federal food assistance programs has increased sharply since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March, according to a report that Maryland Hunger Solutions released Wednesday.
The report shows a 400% increase in federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, applicants among Marylanders in April following the slew of pandemic-related business and school closures in March. Baltimore City, alone, witnessed a 600% jump.
“To a large extent, SNAP applications track both the overall poverty in the state, as well as the ups and downs in the economy,” Michael J. Wilson, the director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, told Maryland Matters in a phone interview Thursday afternoon.
SNAP gives benefits to low-income families to purchase food. Recipients who apply must meet specific requirements, including income limits and citizenship, to get program benefits.
During non-pandemic times, Wilson explained, the minimum benefit for people enrolled in the program is $16 each month. The state augments payments so that people aged 62 and older receive at least $30 monthly.
“It doesn’t make people rich — it doesn’t make people wealthy, but it’s a good investment in the health and nutrition of some of our poorest citizens,” he said. “But that’s only for folks who are 62 and up.”
Wilson said that SNAP applications had been on a downward trend with the economy’s gradual recovery from the Great Recession, and that the number of SNAP participants in Maryland had dipped to about 630,000 at the start of the year, before the COVID-19 crisis.
By June, that number had skyrocketed to 844,933 enrollees — 14% of state residents. Maryland Hunger Solutions’ report stated that is the highest number of participants in state history.
Wilson said the number he saw reported for July showed an additional 10,000 applicants.
“If you think about all the people who lost work, or lost hours, or lost jobs — whether they worked in restaurants or bars or whatever the occupation was — and you think about the stories you heard about people not being able to get through to the unemployment offices, that’s similar to what happened with SNAP,” he said.
According to the report, Maryland Hunger Solutions received more than 3,000 calls to its SNAP application hotline in just one month.
Wilson said that when local Department of Social Services offices were closed earlier this year, the only way people could enroll in SNAP was to go online or to call organizations like Hunger Solutions.
“We got swamped,” he said. “We went from getting a couple dozen calls a week, to getting a couple dozen a day, to getting hundreds a week, to hundreds a day, to thousands a week to thousands a day.”
“It was just overwhelming.”
The report also surveyed state and local participation in other federal food assistance programs, including:
The Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools in areas with high concentrations of poverty to provide free breakfast and lunch to students without making families fill out applications disclosing income;
The National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs, which give schools reimbursements for nutritious meals. Students are eligible for this program based on their household income;
The Summer Food Service Program, or Summer Meals Program, which gives free food to youth in low-income areas when school isn’t in session;
And the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, which is available to pregnant women or those with children under the age of five who meet income, nutrition and residency requirements.
Wilson said that compiling the data from many state agencies and making sure it’s shared is “critical” to addressing the massive increase in people receiving federal assistance.
“I think there are a lot of things we can do that we have to be thoughtful and intentional about,” he said. “But I think having the data is critical to beginning to hav[e] that conversation with state legislators, with the governor’s office, with county officials and with our advocates all around the state.”
Wilson said that Maryland Hunger Solutions plans to meet with its partner organizations and with legislators in late November to figure out what steps the state needs to take to address food security in 2021. But he said that there’s only so much that can be done at a state level.
“Many of these programs are federal programs, and so whatever happens on November the third is very important in terms of how we address hunger in the state of Maryland,” he explained. “What the USDA does — what the federal government does — means the difference between being successful, and being unsuccessful at these programs.”