The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Secretary George Ervin Perdue III’s interpretation of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act has prevented the administrators of California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from providing emergency food benefits to households in the state who currently receive maximum monthly SNAP allowances, a proposed class action alleges.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Congress passed the Families First Act on March 14 with the goal of addressing rising food insecurity and hunger through an influx of resources for SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp program. Through the Families First Act, the USDA was directed by Congress to approve state requests for emergency benefits for SNAP recipients, including those who receive CalFresh benefits in California, in order to meet food shortage needs during the ongoing public health emergency.
Millions of low-income, resource-lacking households in California, however, have been denied emergency food assistance by the USDA and its secretary based on the parties’ interpretation of how to handle states’ emergency allotment requests under the Families First Act, the plaintiffs allege.
According to the lawsuit, the USDA provided guidance to states that request emergency allotments under the Families First Act in a March 20 memo. The memo included a template titled “Request to Provide Emergency Allotments (Supplements) to SNAP Households” that described a permissible state request as:
“The State proposes to provide an emergency allotment to address temporary food needs to households to bringall households up to the maximum benefitdue to pandemic related economic conditions for up to 2 months. (Emphasis added.)”
On March 25, Alexis Fernandez, Chief of California’s CalFresh and Nutrition Branch of the Department of Social Services (CDSS), submitted the state’s request for emergency allotments under the Families First Act, the suit says. According to the complaint, Fernandez’s cover letter “explicitly rejected” the USDA’s interpretation of the Act, declaring, in part, that the CDSS found the agency’s construal that a household may only receive supplemental SNAP benefits to the extent that the supplement raises its total benefit level to the maximum allowable based on household size was “in conflict with both the plain language of the Act” and circumstances leading to its passage.
Further, Fernandez wrote the CDSS found no basis in the text of the Families First Act to support the USDA’s interpretation of “emergency allotment” as supplemental to current allotments in a way that when added to a household’s current SNAP benefits, the total of both current and emergency benefits could not exceed the household maximum, the complaint continues. In the communication, the USDA was also warned that its understanding of the Families First Act left vulnerable households with the least resources, many of whom already receive the maximum monthly SNAP allotment.
California SNAP participants were effectively denied an emergency allotment payment of $60 for March and April 2020 that would have been in addition to their regular monthly SNAP allotments, the case claims.
In all, the USDA’s failure to properly read the language of the Families First Act has had a severe negative impact on millions of struggling California households. From the complaint:
“The Families First Act provides emergency allotments as supplemental food benefits to address the temporary increase in emergency food needs, distinct from the regular monthly allotments provided under the Food and Nutrition Act. The statute placesa simple cap on the amount of these emergency allotments: ‘not greater than the applicable maximum monthly allotment for the household size.’
USDA departs from the plain language of the Act byonly approving state requests to provide emergency allotments equal to the difference between a household’s regular monthly allotment and the maximum allotment for its household size. For households currently receiving the maximum regular allotment, this calculation results inzero dollars of additional benefits.”
The lawsuit can be found below.
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