Settlement in a case between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and food stamp recipients in Pennsylvania regarding COVID relief will mean $712 million in back payments of additional nutrition benefits for more than 650,000 of the lowest-income Pennsylvania households. 

Community Legal Services won an injunction in September on the behalf of Latoya Gilliam and Kayle McCrobie, and have settled litigation with the USDA in Gilliam v. USDA.  Furthermore, the USDA will be changing policies going forward, allowing 12 million families nationwide to receive additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) allotments during the pandemic. It was in October 2020 that the USDA agreed to release the additional allotments to Pennsylvania, but it also sought recoupment if the decision was overturned on appeal, resulting in the commonwealth not following through on the distribution of those benefits. This settlement means the USDA will no longer seek recoupment, and therefore the lawsuit and appeal will be dismissed.   

“We are so pleased that USDA is revisiting this issue so that people across the country can receive the help they need,” said Louise Hayes, Supervising Attorney at Community Legal Services. “Over 650,000 households in Pennsylvania—including seniors, people with disabilities and families with children—will finally be getting the extra SNAP they were previously denied. The pandemic has greatly increased hunger, and this will help parents put food on the table for their children.” 

The plight of SNAP recipients has been a focal point of Pennsylvanians’ struggle during the pandemic. “Because of the pandemic, I cannot buy all the food I need for proper nutrition. I sometimes don’t have enough food, and skip meals.” said Latoya Gilliam. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the matter to a breaking point for people such as Gilliam and Kayla McCrobie. Their fight to put food on the table for themselves and their families, and the fight of many others in the commonwealth, led them to file the putative class action lawsuit against the (USDA) and its Secretary, George Ervin Perdue III. 

The plaintiffs claimed that the USDA’s actions toward the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) was “arbitrary and capricious,” leading to Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services (DHS) being unable to provide “emergency allotments” of additional SNAP benefits to nearly 40 percent of the commonwealth’s recipients. The reason for this is that the USDA’s most recent guidance on the distribution of additional emergency allotments to households states that a household cannot receive more than the maximum aid allowed based on family size. In other words, if a family received the maximum allowance of SNAP benefits before the pandemic, the USDA declared they are ineligible to receive any additional aid. As a result of the settlement, all families that received the maximum SNAP allowance will now also receive the emergency allotments. The DHS will not mail notices, however, so it is vital to inform recipients of their new benefits. View a breakdown of the new benefits here.

The settlement is an important victory not only for the plaintiffs, but also for faith-based advocacy that works on alleviating hunger and eliminating the systemic causes of the plight. The Rev. Patricia Neale, an ELCA World Hunger leader in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, on the behalf of Feast of Justicewas a declarant in the Gilliam v. USDA case. Feast of Justice is based in northeast Philadelphia and provides hunger, education, and life skills counseling programs to its clients. Neale stated that 1,900 families are served annually, with 40 percent receiving SNAP. Of those, 75 percent have a child under 18 or a senior in the household. Before the pandemic Feast of Justice served 285 households per week, with that number skyrocketing to 1,600 households per week with the advent of COVID-19. Eighty percent of those households were new families. 

These families, struggling to put food on their tables, are dependent upon food pantries now more than ever. SNAP recipients, Neale stated, are not permitted to use their benefits for grocery delivery, a service many have relied upon as the pandemic worsened. The strain placed upon food pantries and their supplying food banks is staggering, though. Philabundance, the local food bank, reported that 70 of its members closed their doors thus far, resulting in Feast of Justice, like so many others, turning away between 50-100 households per opening. The ability of the commonwealth to distribute additional emergency allotments to the poorest SNAP recipients will not only help to alleviate their food insecurity, but also the strain placed upon our food banks and pantries. 

Faith-based hunger ministries all across the commonwealth, rural and urban, will benefit from the settlement. “This is an impactful victory for those denied proper SNAP benefits,” says Larry Herrold Jr.LAMPa’s Hunger Advocacy Fellow, “but it will also provide much needed relief for Lutheran kitchens and pantries everywhere who have been stretched thin by the overwhelming number of people unable to get the financial assistance they need.”  

As people of God, we are called to be advocates for those who suffer from food insecurity and the workers and volunteers who devote their time to serving their needs. As the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Social Statement “Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor” states, 

… the United States government and non-government organizations have responsibility to work with others in such areas as securing clean water and sanitation, overcoming hunger and malnutrition, preventing and combating infectious diseases, responding to disasters, and providing health services for women, men, and children who live in poverty. 

If there is one thing that this current pandemic has highlighted, it is that the issues we face as churches, communities, and a nation are intertwined. The settlement in Gilliam v. USDA is a crucial victory for the plaintiffs and others who suffer from a lack of affordable, healthy food. The work continues, though, on ensuring that our government and the institutions it cooperates with are serving the people most in need. Our food ministries and the people they serve depend upon our advocacy efforts and the government accountability which it seeks. 

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