Our Assessment of the American Rescue Plan Act

It’s been a few weeks since the American Rescue Plan Act was signed into law by President Biden. But what does this sweeping $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package mean for our food bank operations and the partners and neighbors we serve? We break it down for you here.

What we know

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) included many significant investments in federal nutrition programs and other forms of direct support for the people we help serve.

  • Extends 15% increase in SNAP benefits through the end of September 2021.

  • Allows Pandemic EBT to continue through the summer and opens the door for the program to operate during any future public health crises.

  • Provides $37 million for the senior meal box program, plus another $750 million for senior nutrition programs through the Older Americans Act.

  • Allocates $4 billion to the USDA to support our nation’s food supply chain, including food purchases to be distributed to people in need through nonprofit organizations like our food bank.

  • Includes $880 million to boost access to more fruits and vegetables for moms and babies through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Then there’s the many anti-poverty measures that will directly benefit the people we help serve:

  • Extends additional unemployment benefits through September 6, 2021.

  • Delivers $1,400 stimulus checks for individuals making $75,000 or less.

  • Expands the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, which is projected to cut child poverty in half.

These are very needed and welcome changes, and the ARPA includes many things that Second Harvest Heartland and the Feeding America network advocated for to ensure that no one is forced to navigate this crisis hungry.

However, our work is far from over—more advocacy is needed to ensure these programs are implemented as effectively as possible, and that these supports continue beyond the urgency of Covid-19. Moreover, we will need to renew efforts to focus our food distributions and future policy responses on communities who are and have been inequitably served by our systems.

What we don’t know

Another vital component of the American Rescue Plan is the $350 billion in funding for “Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds.” An estimated $4.9 billion will come to Minnesota, including almost $2.6 billion to the state and another $2.1 billion for cities, counties and other local governments. As with state and local aid received from earlier Covid-relief packages, how these funds are spent is largely up to the discretion of government leaders and agency staff, with only some general guidelines from the federal government for how money should be used.

Fortunately, our government leaders used past relief funding to support Minnesota’s food banks and food shelves and to invest in the programs of most immediate benefit to neighbors experiencing hunger, thanks in part to the advocacy efforts of Second Harvest Heartland and other vital partners in Minnesota’s emergency food system.

With this new pool of funding becoming available, our network is pushing to shore up food banks and food shelves to meet the ongoing need, expand the reach of nutrition programs, and fund other needs that typically co-occur with hunger, such as rental assistance and better access to affordable health coverage.

What’s still to be seen is how leaders choose to invest these funds, and if they will take this opportunity to design racially equitable responses that target those communities hit hardest by Covid-19. With a longer window of time to spend ARPA funding, with funds expiring in 2024, our civic leaders can be more intentional and focused on how they invest these dollars. We know that throughout this pandemic, communities of color have experienced food insecurity at rates at least twice as high as those of white households. By increasing access to healthy and affordable foods, making it easier to enroll in nutrition programs, boosting social and economic resources for Minnesotans of color, and investing directly in affected communities, Minnesota has the opportunity to finally address racial hunger disparities in our state.

What we’re encouraged by

ARPA is one major package that represents a larger shift in how the federal government is tackling hunger. Even before this bill passed, in the early days of the Biden Administration we saw the rollout of an executive order that boosted Pandemic EBT benefits by 15%, extended a program that provided all families enrolled in SNAP the maximum benefit amount to those households already receiving maximum benefits, and initiated an update of the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining SNAP benefits.

In recent weeks we’ve also seen other welcome changes that will boost nutrition access for more people, from the USDA extension of Covid-era child nutrition waivers to the Department of Homeland Security removing a discriminatory public charge rule from federal nutrition programs. We’re also encouraged by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s nutrition program and food bank priorities.

During last month’s Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, hosted by Feeding American and the Food Research and Action Center, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack emphasized his priorities for his department’s work with nutrition programs and food banks:

Because we can’t address and end hunger through food distributions alone, we look to our elected leaders and public programs to ensure food access and equity.

What we’re mindful of

Even with the many positive changes of the last few months in promoting access to nutrition programs, our work is far from over to ensure that everyone has the resources they need to stay fed and healthy during the pandemic and beyond. In fact, much of our work is just beginning.

Hunger was already at unacceptable levels before Covid struck, and our team is focused on fully leveraging the policies and programs that can bring these levels down for good. Once a policy is passed, how that program is implemented by state and local officials and organizations can make a huge difference in its reach and effectiveness in eliminating hunger.

Many of the policies passed in the last year to deal with economic fallout from the pandemic are only temporary, and as of right now, almost all are slated to end in the fall of 2021. While tracking the implementation of these new policies, we also need to fully leverage those programs that existed pre-pandemic to ensure Minnesotans experiencing hunger will have a safety net to catch them if and when these temporary expansions expire. This work includes fully leveraging the Community Eligibility Program (CEP), which enables schools and districts in high-poverty areas to offer free meals to students, as well as advocating for local legislative changes with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Schools coalition.

The work ahead

While we advocate for effective, equitable implementation of ARPA and continue to deliver food and resources to our neighbors in need, we’ll also push for more equity in other parts of the food system to ensure it's working better, from the people who produce our food to how people access it in their local grocery store. And we’ll keep you updated along the way.