Despite being told to limit exposure to others by ordering groceries online for pickup or delivery, that’s not a possibility for some of Missouri’s most vulnerable.
Federal law doesn’t allow people who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called the Food Stamp program, to use their EBT cards to order groceries online, forcing low-income residents to continue going out in public to buy food.
Last weekend, state Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, received an email from a constituent with a seizure disorder who is unable to drive and relies on her parents to help her shop for groceries.
Although both she and her mother are in high-risk categories for the coronavirus, she couldn’t order groceries online using her benefits due to a federal law requiring the transactions to take place in person, Kendrick said.
Her mother didn’t feel comfortable going with her to the store.
"You know, we're telling people across the nation to stay at home and social distance, but yet barriers are in place for people on supplemental nutrition programs where they are, you know, forced to go into the actual stores and make the purchases," Kendrick said. "And it just puts more people at risk."
The state Department of Social Services has taken several steps to increase benefits available under the program and to prevent people currently receiving benefits from losing their food support.
The department waived work requirements for able-bodied adults in the program in late March.
It also is using recent federal legislation to increase all benefits to the maximum for each household — $509 a month for a family of three.
It has also set up a hotline to deal with questions about the program.
But so far, the state has not been able to reduce the potential exposure of food stamp recipients to infection at crowded grocery stores. Gov. Mike Parson’s state stay-at-home order limits the number of people in grocery stores, but the threat remains, Kendrick said.
A number of high-risk individuals, such as the elderly and people with documented disabilities, receive food benefits, along with single parents who have to bring all their kids to the store when they go shopping.
Kendrick first assumed the problem was a state issue, so he checked in to see what he could do to help.
He found out it was a federal regulation that’s only been eased in six states as part of a USDA pilot program authorized by the 2014 farm bill.
The program, which allows designated stores to accept payment using SNAP benefits online, was slow to get rolling and only added one state — New York — in 2019 before COVID-19 hit. Washington state was added in January, and last week, four more states were approved: Alabama, Nebraska, Oregon and Iowa.
The social services department is currently working on a waiver submission to be part of the program, spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel said in an email.
Caitlin Whaley, the legislative director of the department of social services, told Kendrick in an email Wednesday that the department is still waiting on letters of commitment from FIS — the state’s EBT vendor — and Walmart to complete the waiver submission.
She said the letters are needed to certify the state has the necessary corporate partners to support the program.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that, you know, we can just tap right into the program that's already existing without trying to recreate anything," Kendrick said in regard to how long he expects it will take to be implemented if the state is added to the program.
He said he’s spoken with Sen. Josh Hawley’s office, as well as Sen. Roy Blunt’s office, to push the waiver through.
"My wife and I feel blessed enough where we can do online grocery shopping and pick up curbside with a few different grocery stores here in town," Kendrick said. "We feel that just puts us at less risk ... and it should be that way for everyone."
In February, the most recent month on record, about 37,200 individuals filed for food stamps in Missouri, including 924 in Boone County.
"The number of new food stamp applications received in March 2020 (for the state of Missouri) were up about 40% compared to the prior month," Woelfel wrote in an email.
In 2019, around 330,000 Missouri households received food stamps overall.
In order to qualify for food stamps in Missouri, people cannot own resources worth more than $2,250 when they file their application. That amount excludes their non-cash holdings, like their home, vehicles, burial plots and life insurance, for example.
The Department of Social Services has plans to extend EBT benefits to parents of children who are out of school and eligible for free and reduced lunches, but the program hasn’t been approved yet, according to the department’s website.
According to the department’s website, it can take up to 30 days to process applications for SNAP benefits.
The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri has seen increased need since the start of the pandemic, spokesman Seth Wolfmeyer said.
The food bank, which oversees a number of regional distribution centers, has seen shortages of shelf stable items like canned food and beans due to increased consumer demand, Wolfmeyer said, making it harder than usual for the food bank to obtain their normal supply of items.
The agency has come up with contingency plans in case a local food bank has to close. If that happens, they will be able to set up a pop-up distribution center.
The Central Food Pantry in Columbia has set up a drive-thru distribution center, so families can just pick up food without needing to go inside and risk exposure to the virus.
For people unable to leave home, Wolfmeyer said, the pantry is working with the Services for Independent Living to do home deliveries.
People do not have to be on food stamps to get items from the food pantry, he said.
"Even in normal operation, even without a crisis going on, we do not have income requirements or guidelines for the Central Pantry," he said.
Wolfmeyer said the only requirement would be proof of address, number of people in the household and identification, but people don’t need to have a certain income to qualify for help.
"If anyone comes to the Central Pantry and asks for help, we believe that they're going to need help with food and so we provide it to them," he said.
He added that typically people have to provide signatures to receive food, but in order to limit exposure, the USDA has waived that requirement for the time being.
Wolfmeyer said the most helpful thing people can do to support hungry families in their community is donate money to the food bank.
"Normally I’d say they can also donate food, but we're actually asking people not to hold food drives or go to the store to purchase food to donate, just because we don't want to add to the strain on supply lines," he said.
Those strains make it harder for the food bank itself to get supplies, he said.
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