In the wave of systemic issues bubbling to the surface of our collective state and national attention, hunger has not been left out. “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.1 The struggle to attain healthy food and balanced diets has long been a struggle for recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but the COVID-19 pandemic has 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 a putative class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its Secretary, George Ervin Perdue III in Gilliam v. USDA.

The plaintiffs claim 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.2 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.3 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. For example, according to the DHS a family of four in Pennsylvania would be capped at $646/month, with the USDA prohibiting any further aid regardless of circumstance.

This is an important victory not only for the plaintiffs, but for faithed-based advocacy that works on alleviating hunger and eliminating the systemic causes of the plight. The Rev. Patricia Neale, of the ELCA’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, on the behalf of Feast of Justice, is 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. View this video about their ministry in the time of COVID. Neale stated that 1,900 families are served annually, with 40% receiving SNAP. Of those, 75% 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 are 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.4 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.

The USDA’s limitations on who can receive additional SNAP benefits placed many in the commonwealth in impossible situations. Since the pandemic began the United States Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey shows that “food insecurity has doubled overall, and tripled among households with children.”5 The U.S. Census Bureau published on July 16 showed 11.3% of Pennsylvania adults now live in homes where there was little food for seven consecutive days. Despite this explosion in food insecurity in the commonwealth, the USDA as early as April 10 denied Pennsylvania’s waiver requests.6 The waivers would have allowed for additional SNAP benefits to be distributed to the poorest recipients, who the current USDA guidance excludes.

On September 11, Federal Judge John Milton Younge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found that the USDA has no right to create a “subclass” of people, within the aid provided by Congress, who are ineligible to receive additional SNAP benefits because of the pre-pandemic aid they already received. Congress, he asserts, would have laid out restrictions on aid distribution if that was their original intent. Therefore, the court issued an injunction against this restrictive action by the USDA. The plaintiff’s request is that the USDA reassess Pennsylvania’s request for emergency allotments, determine if there is sufficient data to provide said allotments, and subsequently provide the additional aid disregarding a household’s regular SNAP allotment.7

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.8

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 injunction in Gilliam v. USDA is a short-term 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.

  1. Opinion: Latoya Gilliam, et al., v. United States Department of Agriculture, et al., [2020] (U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania). pp.33
  2. Ibid., 1-2
  3. Ibid., 24.
  4. Declaration of Reverend Patricia Neale, [05/20/2020]. pp.1-2.
  5. Opinion: Gilliam v. USDA., 4.
  6. Ibid., 4-5, 13.
  7. Ibid., 25,37.
  8. “Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor”., Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Aug. 2003. pg. 13-14.

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