Post-disaster food assistance

By Brigitta Bogue, Husker Writers

Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series of persuasive essays produced in partnership with the University of Nebraska’s Husker Writers program in spring 2019. Students in Prof. Mark Houston’s English 254 course worked with ninth graders at Lincoln High School to research a specific topic embedded with civic engagement during the spring semester. For more on the project, click here.

Author’s Note: I am a recent graduate from the University of Nebraska, where I obtained a degree in environmental studies with an emphasis in sociology. I hope to pursue a career in environmental justice at a non-profit and plan to continue my education through attending law school or a graduate program in environmental justice.

What Is SNAP?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, provides food assistance to those who meet the requirements. With the exception of some children, seniors, pregnant persons, and those with physical or mental disabilities, people must apply to work, take any job offered, and not quit or reduce hours at a said job in order to receive SNAP. Employment training may also be required. In addition to these requirements, recipients must not make more than the set income limits based on household income levels and the percentage of poverty.

When someone applies for SNAP, they must get a response within 30 days of application, and within seven if they meet further requirements which indicate extreme circumstances. If assistance is approved by the USDA, recipients are given an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, which is a debit card which can be used for any food product at SNAP approved grocers and farmer’s markets. As of February 2019, 70,000 Nebraskans were receiving assistance through SNAP.  The recent government shutdown affected the timings of federal assistance distribution. SNAP was sent out early to account for the shutdown, but it was unclear when recipients would get their next payment. Although it was distributed on time the following month, people should not have any uncertainty in whether they will receive their assistance every month. People need to eat regardless of a government shutdown- people need to eat regardless of any situation.

There is a common misconception that non-citizens cannot obtain food assistance. Although non-citizens must have documentation that they are legally residing in the US, they can qualify for SNAP if they are minors, have disability assistance, or have lived in the US for 5 years. There is warranted hesitancy for non-citizens to make the decision to apply for assistance, even though the qualifications ensure assistance is desperately needed. The current administration has proposed extending public charge policy, which restricts people immigrating to the US who are likely to become a “burden on taxpayers”, to those who use public assistance programs such as SNAP. Even the mention of this change lowers the chance people will apply for assistance for which they qualify.

2018 Farm Bill

The US Farm Bill decides SNAP requirements as well as farm assistance and subsidy programs. Since farming is a very risky career, characterized by the dominance of large and powerful agricultural companies, debt, and dependence on climatic conditions, the US government provides federal insurance and assistance programs for farmers. Some programs include the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC), which provides insurance to crop producers and aims to increases disaster preparedness, the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP), which, in emergencies, provides funding for farmland and water conservation, the Emergency Loan Program (EM) which is available for physical losses related to agricultural production, Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance (NAP) which  can be used to provide financial assistance for non-insurable crop losses, and Emergency Support Function (ESF-11) which provides protection for the “food supply, human nutritional needs, natural/cultural/historic resources, and household pet” support.

In Nebraska, there has been extreme flooding which has affected farmers and their crops. Many were forced to use these programs and file for Chapter 12 bankruptcy. The Ruzicka family, which has been farming in Nebraska for five generations, lost their farmhouse and historic farming equipment. They also lost countless animals, especially calves. People generationally running family farms have faced issues of poor mental health, poverty, and debt before these continual disasters. The increase is pushing many past or right up to the breaking point, especially when there is a culture of self-blame when losses occur.

The assistance programs related to these disasters are not automatically available when disaster strikes. There must be a state level disaster declaration by the governor, then the governor must seek a presidential declaration of a major disaster. To obtain this declaration, the governor or equivalent tribal leader can directly ask. The declaration will include which types of assistance will be available to those within the declared disaster zone. Public Assistance (PA) refers to assistance with public infrastructure such as roads and bridges, Individual Assistance (IA) refers to the activation assistance programs for individuals and households such as Disaster SNAP.

After the flooding earlier this year, Gov. Ricketts spoke with Vice President Pence to relay information about the extent of damage beyond what the state and local government can handle. The disaster declaration was made by Trump on March 21, 2019, under the disaster designation DR-4420. The Incident Period was set as March 09, 2019 – April 01, 2019, with a total of $20,743,759.18 IA dollars approved.

Disaster SNAP

D-SNAP was activated in Nebraska when Federally declared disaster includes Individual Assistance programs. In the face of disaster, many more people become food insecure. Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) is a program which temporarily gives emergency SNAP access to those experiencing disaster effects and meet income/resource requirements. There is also expanded access to free and reduced price lunch at schools. The USDA approves the availability of this support. D-SNAP has been approved for declared disaster areas in Nebraska, affected by the recent floods. To receive assistance, one must live in declared disaster area AND either had their home or property used for self-employment damaged or destroyed, other disaster expenses, incurred disaster-related income interruptions, or lost access to the bank account through the disaster. There is one month of assistance given before recipients must apply for SNAP to continue receiving assistance. I can talk about the disaster declaration process and that the governor must ask for a presidential declaration for some programs to be in place. There are also interesting connections to disproportionate effects of low-income and marginalized groups, particularly undocumented individuals.

Only one person per household must be eligible for disaster assistance to apply, emergency needs are available to undocumented people, but often times this is not well communicated and there are threats from officials that ICE officers will be present even though emergency services are supposed to be available to everyone. This absence of information or intentional misinformation leads to preventable deaths and discriminatory access to basic needs.

What Can You Do?

If you are eligible, VOTE! Advocate for human rights through expanding access assistance programs to non-citizens and putting in place protections so that people do not need to choose between potential life and death situation of being deported, especially for those fleeing violence, by choosing to attempt to receive disaster assistance with threat of potential deportation OR not attempting to get life-saving disaster assistance. If you tend to make decisions with a more economically-oriented mindset, consider that for each disaster there is huge cost; economists generally agree that preventative spending makes the long term cost lower. Spending on addressing climate change with an intersectional mindset would decrease the need for assistance and post-disaster spending.

These issues will only increase as climate change causes an increase in disasters and displaces masses of people around the world. Voting for a representative who will advocate of a comprehensive plan to mitigate climate change and support those displaced by disaster, violence, and poverty regardless of immigration status, is critical in reducing disproportionate effects of environmental and social issues on marginalized groups.