JEFFERSON CITY — More people filed for food stamps in Missouri in March as job losses mounted and the state intensified its response to the new coronavirus pandemic.
Data released this month shows that applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, jumped substantially in March.
While the number of people on the rolls increased only slightly, applications rose to 61,164, up from 37,201 in February — an increase of 64 percent.
The increase stands out when compared to recent years. In March 2019, the state received about 38,000 applications, which was a 16 percent jump from the month before.
A St. Louis-based legal aid attorney who helps Missourians sign up for SNAP benefits said she’s seen a spike in need.
“We’re getting a lot of calls. We’re getting a lot of new cases,” said Kate Holley of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. “We certainly are getting people reaching out wanting more information in a way that’s unprecedented since I’ve been working here.”
This comes as new jobless claims in Missouri remain high. Unemployment claims across the country have skyrocketed — about one in six American workers, including more than 411,000 Missourians, have lost their jobs in the past five weeks.
Many of Holley’s clients are homeless, people who already were struggling before the pandemic. But she said Legal Services of Eastern Missouri has been hearing from people they normally wouldn’t — like those who had well-paying jobs before the pandemic.
“It’s people who may never have applied for food stamps before, may not ever have needed to,” she said.
The volume of applications is the largest the state has seen during March since 2010, when the U.S. was dealing with economic fallout from the Great Recession. In March of that year, Missouri received over 88,000 food stamp applications.
From 2008 to 2011, the state added 249,000 people to the rolls, according to a recent report from the Missouri Budget Project, a nonpartisan think tank.
The report predicted Missouri could see even higher levels of need during the current economic crisis.
“The number of people needing food assistance during the COVID-19 crisis will likely equal, or surpass, the quarter of a million increase seen during the Great Recession,” the report stated.
Before the economic consequences of the pandemic struck Missouri, the number of people on the state’s food stamp rolls had been declining for several years.
In February, the Department of Social Services said that it attributed this partly to fewer overall applications, which happens when the economy improves.
BENEFITS DURING THE PANDEMIC
For now, Missouri has relaxed the normal rules for food stamp applicants and recipients.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recentl approved a waiver allowing SNAP recipients in Missouri to buy food online.
The waiver will allow people to use their Electronic Benefit Transfer cards to buy food online from Amazon and Walmart, and the state is seeking to add other grocery stores to that list, according to a news release. Delivery fees or other charges can’t be paid with food stamp benefits.
“Food stamp households should have the same opportunity to practice social distancing and minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19 as any Missourian making food purchases,” said Jennifer Tidball, acting director of the Department of Social Services, in the release.
It’s not clear when Missourians will be able to start using their benefits for online grocery shopping.
Missouri began making changes to the food stamp program in late March.
At the time, the state said anyone who was supposed to be recertified in March, April or May would get a six-month extension.
The state also temporarily waived work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents, and said it would give all households the maximum amount in April, as part of the federal Families First Act. For a household of four, that’s $646.
The Family Support Division, which administers the program, also expanded its call center hours and waived a requirement that new applicants must complete a phone interview.
The Missouri Budget Project report made several recommendations about further actions the state and federal government could take. These include increasing the maximum benefit by 15 percent until the economy recovers, allowing for applications by phone and easing paper eligibility verification requirements.
The department spokeswoman didn’t respond to a question about whether the state is considering other changes to the program.