MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – With the pandemic causing a surge in job loss and lower wages, many organizations are asking Congress to invest more in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). One of those groups is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

Founded by a former president of Johnson & Johnson in 1952, the philanthropy has helped establish the 9-1-1 emergency call system and improve end-of-life care. 

According to RWJF, SNAP has a proven track record at helping people in the short term, such as when they are between jobs or suffering some other economic hardship, as the program lifted 3.4 million Americans out of poverty in 2017, and between 2009 and 2012, nearly half of SNAP participants received benefits for two years or less. On top of that, SNAP helps stir economic activity and creates jobs.

In this Q&A, we sat down with Jamie Bussel, Senior Program Officer of RWJF to discuss what policy suggestions the foundation has for Congress and the federal government.

Q: Why do you think that SNAP should be strengthened?

A: One of the most devastating consequences of the COVID pandemic has been the stunning increase in our country in the number of people that are going hungry. Kids and adults, so 50 million people in this country are hungry. Of those, 17 million are kids. And that means that number of people that are food insecure do not know when their next meal will come.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or what we refer to as the SNAP program is the nation’s largest food assistance program and it provides critical and powerful aid and support to kids and families in this country who are struggling to afford food. So again, it’s a critically important support. Especially in this time where we are seeing soaring increases in the number of people going hungry, so it’s incredibly important that we think about the power of this program [and] the importance of strengthening it to be sure that every kid and family can thrive in America.

Q: One of the things RWJF says on their website is that SNAP is in a unique position to drive economic activity. Can you talk a little bit about that?

A: You bet. It’s one of the best ways that we can recover and it really stimulates the economy. So as an example, a billion additional resources in SNAP would generate 1.54 billion in the gross domestic product, would create 14,000 jobs, and again, that’s on top of all of the other hugely powerful benefits that we know the program has in terms of supporting the health and well being of kids and as an anti-poverty program in addition to an anti-hunger program. So, it’s one of the most powerful supports that we have in the country to ensure that kids and families can thrive. 

Q: What are some of the things that you think Congress should do to strengthen SNAP?

A: We applaud all the flexibilities and strengths that have been deployed over the last year. Critically important things have happened in the SNAP program, and we are really pushing on Congress to do what they can to both maintain and retain those flexibilities. Increases, for instance, in the actual SNAP benefits of 15 percent. We would like to see that extended throughout the pandemic, and really be thinking about post pandemic and recovery, knowing how important it is to get kids and families back on track. We would like to see an increase of 20% in the SNAP benefits. In addition, we would like to see assurances that the lowest income households continue to be eligible for emergency SNAP benefits and allotments.

And then there is something called the PEBT, the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, that’s essentially provided additional resources to kids and families given all the school closures, child care closures and all of those missing meals that kids are having to face. So, there’s a whole bunch of things that we are encouraging Congress to retain and then, in addition, being really thoughtful about beyond the pandemic and recession, what needs to happen, and again, that’s an increase in SNAP benefits overall.

Q: So I know that we increased SNAP during the 2008 recession as well, and what were some of the effects of that? 

A: We have really strong research connecting increases in SNAP to kids health and well being, so their academic success, their long-term health, generating jobs, stimulating the local economy, so again, it’s one of the most powerful tools that we have as we go about building back better recovery in the aftermath of COVID.

Q: Can you talk a little more about food insecurity and how important it is to have access to proper food?

A: Absolutely, so to give a frame, last year as many as 50 million people in this country again, including 17 million kids were food insecure meaning that they did not know when their next meal was coming. So today, kids are more likely than any other population group to face hunger.

Another important thing to note is that people of color, especially kids of color, experience higher rates of food insecurity, so up to 29 percent of kids from black households, up to 31 percent of kids from Latino households are experiencing food insecurity. That’s compared to 9 percent of kids from white households, so this has dramatic consequences on kids and families’ health and well-being. It’s critically important to ensure everyone has access to healthy, affordable foods so that they can thrive.

Q: Was there anything I didn’t ask that you wanted to add?

Maybe I’ll just close by saying just how strong the research is that really shows how access to nutritious food helps kids’ brains develop and improve their academic performance, has long-term health benefits, and really establishes healthy eating habits throughout their life. So not only is this an economic engine and a job creation tool but it also has incredibly powerful benefits for kids and families.