President signs emergency coronavirus funding bill, including safeguards for WIC, SNAP, and other nutrition programs

The bipartisan bill also mandates paid sick leave for some workers, but exempts companies with 500 or more employees—a huge segment of the food industry.

Update, March 19, 11:00 a.m.: On Wednesday night, Donald Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act into law. The Senate passed the bill in a 90-8 vote earlier in the day.

Last Friday evening, the House of Representatives passed the bipartisan bill to provide stopgap funding for a wide range of federal programs, with an emphasis on bolstering food security as the economy recoils from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Key provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act include $500 million in additional funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)—a program that gives mothers with infants and children money for groceries and baby formula; $400 million to food banks; $100 million in nutrition assistance to U.S. territories; and additional funds to families on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) whose children will lose access to free lunch due to school closures.

The bill is also significant because it temporarily suspends a Trump administration rule that would have tightened work requirements for SNAP users starting on April 1. (Separately, on Friday, a federal judge issued an injunction to block the work requirement rule.) If implemented, it is expected to strip benefits from nearly 700,000 people. Earlier in the week, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue had stated his intent to move forward with rule in spite of the ongoing economic downturn. Policy experts argued that doing so would have devastating consequences.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted layoffs in nearly every industry, making it impossible to foresee just what the job market will look like tomorrow or even next week.

Enforcing work requirements right now “would be catastrophic,” says Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a public policy think tank. “[It’s] particularly a risk right now because you may have very rapid shifts in unemployment …. It’s just putting stress on a system that may be completely unable to receive it.”

As Covid-19 cases rise dramatically, consumer spending has plummeted, prompting layoffs in virtually every industry, from travel to entertainment to dining to tech to journalism. Such volatility makes it impossible to foresee just what the job market will look like tomorrow or even next week.

The House bill would also mandate two weeks of paid sick leave for some workers whose health or whose family members are sickened by Covid-19; businesses can then be reimbursed via tax credits. However, there’s a significant catch to this provision: It would apply only to “employers with fewer than 500 employees and government employers.” This exempts a sizable number of companies in the food world including grocery store chains like Wegmans and restaurant groups like Dunkin’ and DineEquity, the parent company of IHOP and Applebee’s. Public health experts have long argued that paid sick leave reduces the spread of disease by encouraging contagious workers to recover from illness, without having to risk the loss of income. 

The bill has been praised by anti-hunger advocates: “Families and workers across the country need access to vital programs and basic needs,” reads a statement issued by the anti-hunger nonprofit Food and Research Action Center. “The bill protects people most in need, and so protects all of us.”

Among its provisions is a $250 million boost to the senior nutrition program, which provides food to low-income elderly Americans. As you’ve likely heard, older people face an elevated risk for serious illness stemming from Covid-19. At the same time, funding for senior nutrition programs has been spread thin by coronavirus-related pressures.

“In this climate there is no way we can ask anyone for any suggested donations.”

For example, last week, Sound Generations—a nonprofit that provides communal meals and social services to seniors in the Seattle area—began to shutter its dining sites as a precautionary measure to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spread. But because Sound Generations receives federal funding on a per-meal reimbursement basis, the loss of group dining could jeopardize its entire operation.

Sound Generations is now operating at about 30 percent of its usual capacity, estimates Suma Mondal, program director of community dining and volunteer transportation. It continues to feed seniors via its meal delivery programs.

However, “we have running costs, we have [to keep] our employees staffed,” Mondal says. “We’re worried.” Not to mention, “a part of our revenue comes from client donations and in this climate there is no way we can ask anyone for any suggested donations.” 

Meals on Wheels, a large nonprofit that supports senior nutrition programs nationally, wrote in an emailed statement that the Families First bill would likely help meal delivery services for seniors fill in the gap left by shuttered group feeding operations. “This additional funding would enable local Meals on Wheels providers to continue to deliver meals to not just their existing senior clients, but a new wave of at-risk individuals looking for home-delivered meals.”

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter.