Food Is Medicine: April 3, 2020 Newsletter

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As we wrap up the week, our thoughts are on food, and all the ways that access to it across the U.S. has changed suddenly in the past month. Children without access to school-based meals, restaurants closed indefinitely, grocery stores with limited provisions and long lines, and at least 10 million newly unemployed people wondering how they’ll put dinner on the table for their families.

“Food is the core of any society,” says chef Dominique Crenn. “Food feeds your mind, body, and soul. Food is culture. Food is medicine.” Crenn expresses at an instinctive level a central wisdom underlying the social determinants of health: Access to quality, healthy food for all is critical in our well-being as individuals and as a society.

As the economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic drives thousands of Americans to apply for federal food assistance known as “SNAP,” short for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, many for the first time, it’s going to be essential to streamline the application process as much as possible, as fast as possible, both for the people applying for help as well as the agency staff managing the increased demand.

In California alone, the number of people applying for food assistance reportedly jumped to 55,624 in the third week of March, up from 34,882 during the same period last year. In LA County the numbers doubled. To ease the burden on the application system, the USDA, which oversees SNAP, recently approved California’s waiver (see the state’s latest guidance on implementation here).

The waiver allows California to enroll new applicants into SNAP without a face-to-face interview, and to allow them to sign the application by phone without a recording, at least until May 31. So-called telephonic signatures are a more user-friendly technology option that we recommend for all states and counties who will be expanding and flexing their SNAP programs. Read more suggestions for streamlining the process of enrollment in our Best Tech Tips for Agencies. And if your state’s waivers haven’t been approved, check out California’s waiver here.

Enabling individuals and families to access SNAP as a safety net is just one part of supporting the food system in our country. The other is protecting the health and well-being of the people bringing food to market. From farmworkers picking strawberries to the truck drivers delivering produce and clerks stocking grocery shelves, these workers are doing essential work for the rest of us. For farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented and working in close conditions, the lack of paid sick leave increases pressure to work, even while sick, adding to hardship and community risk. They are considered essential workers and yet do not qualify for many support programs.

The relief package adopted by Congress excludes undocumented workers, who comprise the majority of farmworkers in this country. Fortunately, in some states, there are local programs that help bridge the gap. In California, undocumented farmworkers may qualify for Medi-Cal and can seek medical care at local health clinics and hospitals. Across the states, it is important to ensure undocumented individuals and families can continue to seek emergency and public health services (like testing or vaccines) as well as food pantries or shelters.

This week, we pulled together a list of resources and agencies addressing the needs of special populations in our round-up of COVID-19 policy updates on our website. Check this page frequently for our analysis and insights to make policy changes operational and meaningful.