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State handled ‘unprecedented’ food need in 2020, officials say

Louisiana responded to an unprecedented food need in 2020, a tumultuous year marked by the coronavirus pandemic and three hurricanes that made landfall in the state, according to information from the Department of Children and Family Services (DFCS).

The state distributed more than $674 million in emergency food assistance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and hurricanes Laura, Delta and Zeta. That assistance included the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program for school children, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) emergency allotments, Disaster SNAP (DSNAP) benefits, Replacement SNAP benefits and an unprecedented distribution of Replacement DSNAP benefits.

The DCFS also received five times the normal volume of SNAP applications within the first 30 days of the pandemic, and ended the year serving an all-time high of more than 456,000 SNAP households. That represents a 26-percent increase over nine months — adding 95,228 households and 177,069 people from February to November — after a four-year steady decline in the number of families receiving assistance.

“The extraordinary circumstances of this year called for extraordinary measures on behalf of the families we serve,” DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters said. “Every step we could take to minimize the crises’ impact and maximize support for our families, we took it.”

With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), Louisiana streamlined its SNAP application and recertification processes and requested additional benefits for families struggling to make ends meet.

The state’s efforts resulted in the following additional benefits for Louisiana families:

  • $444.6 million in COVID-19 Emergency Allotments to bring SNAP households up to the maximum allotment for their household size. These emergency supplements were distributed for 10 consecutive months, from March through December, providing on average an extra $44.4 million in benefits to about 580,000 people in 270,000 households each month.
  • $137.1 million in P-EBT, providing money to replace free or reduced-price meals children otherwise would have received at school had campuses not closed for the pandemic. This program, operated in coordination with the Louisiana Department of Education, provided meal assistance for 481,241 children in 284,259 households.
  • $37.3 million in DSNAP benefits following Hurricane Laura, for 126,823 people in 56,338 households in 21 parishes
  • $26.8 million in SNAP Replacement benefits following Hurricane Laura, for 215,824 people in 101,768 households in 26 parishes
  • $3.6 million in DSNAP benefits following Hurricane Delta, for 20,018 people in 9,429 households in 10 parishes
  • $15.2 million in SNAP Replacement and DSNAP Replacement benefits following Hurricane Delta, for 260,412 people in 122,556 households, combined, in 25 parishes for SNAP and 14 parishes for DSNAP. This was the first time Louisiana had ever issued Replacement DSNAP benefits for food lost during a second storm after having been purchased with benefits received after a first storm.
  • $9.7 million in SNAP Replacement benefits following Hurricane Zeta, for 212,569 people in 107,088 households in six parishes

The coronavirus pandemic required serving Louisiana families differently.

Louisiana was the first state to conduct multiple rounds of virtual DSNAP operations on a large scale in response to hurricanes. Using an online pre-registration process followed by a phone interview, the state was able to mitigate against spread of the virus while addressing the food needs of residents hard hit by a series of storms, including the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Louisiana in more than a century.

DCFS also implemented more direct communication with clients, using text messages to notify SNAP and DSNAP applicants and recipients of important dates, benefits and process changes. Between March and December 2020, DCFS sent multiple text messages each month to applicants and families receiving food assistance, often including links to freshly built and updated Department webpages with additional information. DCFS also partnered with Louisiana 211 in a GetSNAP campaign early in the pandemic to connect SNAP applicants with online information and tips on applying for SNAP. The text messages, along with extensive outreach on social media, led to a 300-percent increase in traffic on the department’s website, with 18.1 million views from March 16 to Dec. 15, compared to 4.4 million during the same period in 2019.

The department also secured federal waivers to allow SNAP and DSNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase hot or prepared foods from participating Louisiana retailers where SNAP EBT cards are accepted. This waiver was vital in the aftermath of the hurricanes to allow residents without access to a kitchen to use their benefits for pre-made food items.

Other waivers included:

  • Eliminating formal interviews for SNAP applications, simplified reports and annual redeterminations through June 30, 2021. Applicants still must provide enough documentation to demonstrate eligibility for a determination to be made on their case.
  • Extending the timeline for SNAP Simplified Reports and Redeterminations, giving all SNAP households a three-month extension on filing the paperwork required to maintain eligibility in order to allow DCFS staff to focus on DSNAP and new SNAP applications. With the extensions now ending, simplified reports will resume in January 2021, with families due for reporting next month receiving a notice in late December. Redeterminations will resume in February, with households due for their annual recertification that month receiving a notice in January.

For the latest updates on SNAP benefits changes, visit www.dcfs.la.gov/page/snap-updates.