New applications for the largest federal food-aid program during the coronavirus pandemic have nearly doubled on Long Island compared with the same period last year, as residents descend on emergency food distribution sites and members of Congress push to expand funding for the program.
Data from the Nassau and Suffolk social services departments show a sharp rise in the number of first-time applicants for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as residents who have lost jobs and income turn to government assistance for the first time in their lives.
In Nassau, there were 1,072 new SNAP applications filed in February; 2,140 in March; and 3,786 in April, for a total of 6,998. Suffolk received 1,873 in February; 3,613 in March; and 5,231 in April — a total of 10,717.
Last year during the period, Nassau got 3,262 new applications, while Suffolk received 5,695, for a total of 8,957.
“People who have never utilized SNAP before, who have never received benefits, are coming forward applying for these because of the economic devastation that’s occurred as a result of the virus,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.
All nonessential businesses were ordered to cease in-person service beginning the evening of March 22, leaving many on Long Island in the restaurant, retail, construction and other service industries without income.
A record number of people from Nassau and Suffolk filed unemployment claims over the last seven weeks. There were 26,585 jobless claims filed on Long Island with the state Department of Labor for the week ending May 2, bringing the total number of filers to 259,590 over the past seven weeks.
Nationwide, the unemployment rate hit 14.7% in April, the highest in any month since the Great Depression. Local officials say more residents likely will need safety net programs such as SNAP, federal Temporary Assistance and emergency housing programs funded with state and federal money but administered by counties and contracted third-party vendors.
In Suffolk, Department of Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre said her office is facing a skyrocketing number of applications. The office, with about 1,300 workers, also has had to reconfigure its space to permit social distancing. Workers must wear personal protective equipment, and some process applications from home. In-person eligibility interviews have been suspended.
Pierre said despite the challenges, all applicants have case workers and only a handful of applications have yet to be processed.
"People need to eat and they need help," Pierre said. "When they come for SNAP we are also letting them know that pantries exist for their immediate needs."
To qualify for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, an individual's annual gross income is taken into consideration as well as the number of members in the family. For example, an individual should not make more than $16, 248; a family of four $33,480; and a family of eight $56,460, according to the state's website.
The rise in SNAP applicants on Long Island comes as Congress debates proposals to expand assistance provided by the $68 billion program.
Democrats want to increase benefits temporarily during the pandemic. But Republicans are balking, concerned the increases could become permanent and add to the rising national debt. Any new expansion would have to pass the Democrat-controlled House and the GOP-run Senate.
Last week, New York expanded federal food assistance programs to include more than 1.4 million children in the state who normally rely on school breakfast and lunch. Similar to SNAP, the P-EBT program, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides a debit card to households to use for groceries.
During the COVID-19 crisis, about 20% of mothers with children under the age of 12 have reported their kids were not getting enough to eat, according to a Brookings Institution report. That was triple the rate documented in a similar study done in 2008 at the height of the Great Recession, Brookings said.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran has made residents' need for food a focus of her daily coronavirus briefings. She encourages residents with the resources to donate food or money, or to volunteer their time to relief organizations.
The county has earmarked $1 million to partner with Island Harvest, which has set up food distribution sites in at least seven locations in Nassau.
"No one in Nassau County should have to wonder where their next meal is coming from," Curran said.
FEDERAL FOOD AID: JUMP IN LI APPLICANTS DURING PANDEMIC
New applications for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, filed by Nassau and Suffolk County residents during the coronavirus pandemic compared with last year:
Nassau: 1,072 new SNAP applications in February; 2,140 in March; and 3,786 in April — a total of 6,998.
Suffolk: 1,873 in February; 3,613 in March; and 5,231 in April — a total of 10,717.
Nassau: 1,074 in February; 1,093 in March; and 1,095 in April. In 2019 — a total of 3,262,
Suffolk: 1,803 in February; 1,951 in March; and 1,941 in April — a total of 5,695.
Sources: Nassau and Suffolk counties