By Derek Lin
April 6, 2020

Even with social distancing, the coronavirus pandemic has made it clear how interconnected we all are – that the health of an entire community is dependent on the health of each of its members. For the community to be healthy, everyone must have access to health care, shelter, and nutritious food. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic, New Mexico had the worst rates of child food insecurity in the nation, with one in four children lacking adequate nutrition, skipping meals, or experiencing hunger. And most New Mexico school children (75 percent) depend on school meals for consistent access to food. We have yet to experience the full consequences of this public health crisis, but it will undoubtedly exacerbate the existing disparities in food access with long-term ramifications on the financial security, health, and well-being of New Mexico children, particularly among low-income families and communities of color. With a looming recession, it is critical for the state to be proactive, take advantage of all available resources, and take common-sense steps to ensure that New Mexicans can meet their basic needs.

SNAP and the economy

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of the most effective, evidence-based tools for improving food security and reducing poverty. SNAP also helps the economy. When SNAP benefits were increased early in the 2008 recession through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, they were key to stimulating the economy and improving food security, according to a recent study by the US Department of Agriculture. Since food is a basic need, SNAP recipients spend their benefits quickly, so positive impacts to the local economy can be felt almost immediately.

Federal legislation and state options

Fortunately, states now have more flexibility in using SNAP to provide meals for families experiencing food insecurity, thanks to the federal government’s recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). Among its many provisions, the FFCRA allows families who aren’t enrolled in SNAP, but have children who receive free or reduced-price school meals, to be eligible for the nutrition assistance program. Families will receive up to $114 per child per month, and the benefits are available regardless of immigration status. The FFCRA also allows SNAP beneficiaries to be eligible for the maximum amount of benefits based on the size of their household, rather than on the size of their income. While this provision will help families whose household income only qualifies them for the minimum benefit, it won’t provide extra help to families who already receive the maximum benefit.

While SNAP benefits should be increased at the federal level, New Mexico can and should increase the state SNAP supplement – state-funded benefits for SNAP recipients – to provide families with the emergency nutrition assistance they urgently need.

New Mexico has already taken advantage of several flexibilities offered by the FFCRA, including extended certification periods and relaxed reporting requirements. Additional next steps that can be taken include providing nutrition assistance for college students and requesting federal approval to allow SNAP benefits to be used for prepared foods in grocery stores and restaurants (similar to California’s CalFresh Restaurant Meals Program). Expanding prepared food options for SNAP recipients is particularly important for families who are unhoused or have members with disabilities and may be unable to prepare food for themselves.

Other safety net recommendations

Because food security is inextricably linked with financial security, we also need to ensure that families can meet all of their basic household needs. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program will be instrumental in providing income to families experiencing unemployment. TANF provides cash assistance that can be used for basic needs such as rent, utilities, and non-food necessities like diapers and soap. In New Mexico, lawmakers haven’t increased TANF benefit levels since 1996. The average amount for a family of three is just $447 per month – or the equivalent of 25 percent of the federal poverty level – which falls short in covering household expenses. In just one week in March the pandemic led to more than 17,000 new unemployment insurance claims in New Mexico, an almost 1,900 percent increase from the previous week. Now is the time for the state to increase TANF benefits and eliminate work requirements.

Additional steps should include a robust paid family medical leave policy to help workers maintain employment if they or their family members become sick. Taking these steps will also help relieve the strain placed on food banks during times of crisis, since they will be an essential resource for emergency food access.

As we navigate this pandemic, we can rely on these evidence-based strategies to ensure New Mexicans are able to meet their basic needs. The safety net is designed for times like this, and if New Mexico acts early to increase the reach of SNAP, TANF, and paid family medical leave, we can best prepare our communities to not only withstand, but overcome the challenges presented by this public health crisis.

Derek Lin, MPH, is a research and policy analyst with New Mexico Voices for Children