By Brandon Lipps, Administrator, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service
First Harvey, then Irma, now Maria – these colossal hurricanes hit Texas, Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and beyond with an impact that will be felt for months, if not years to come. These record-breaking disasters have already overturned the lives of millions, and the full extent of Maria’s destruction remains to be seen. The survivors of these disasters will have a lot of challenges to contend with, but hunger should not be one of them.
In the aftermath of disasters like these, food is often the most immediate need. Many times, grocery stores are closed or destroyed, as are restaurants, and food previously purchased by families is ruined or unavailable. It is our job at USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to leverage America’s agricultural abundance to get food to people in times of need. In the wake of a disaster, we work with our state, local, and national partners to address people’s needs during both the immediate aftermath and after stores have reopened.
FNS is working with officials in affected states and territories on a daily and sometimes hourly basis to ensure that our programs best respond to their needs. Typically FNS programs serve specific populations. For example, USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is designed to serve low-income pregnant or postpartum women, infants, and children under 5 who are nutritionally at risk while free meals through the National School Lunch Program are provided to children whose family income is at or below 130 percent of the Federal poverty line. However, disasters know no boundaries, so in times of emergency, the scope of our work expands to serve all those in need.
Our work begins long before disaster strikes. We work all year to ensure that we have the structure in place for a swift response. We maintain inventories of USDA foods at state, local and school warehouses that can be shipped quickly to areas in need. We also coordinate with FEMA and partners like the Red Cross and Salvation Army to develop plans for disaster relief. When disaster strikes, we are ready to roll.
Immediately following Harvey and Irma, we went to work, providing USDA foods for shelters and other mass feeding sites and ensuring food banks have enough supply to serve their community – and as soon as Maria passes, we’ll do the same there as well. We also approved a Disaster Household Distribution in hard-hit areas of Texas and Florida, which provided food packages that people in affected areas could take home with them to tide them over until grocery stores and other options were up and running. The packages contained 25-30 pounds of quality, nutritious, American-grown USDA foods.
We have also worked closely with states to help low-income families participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This included replacing SNAP benefits so participants could purchase food to make up for what was lost in the hurricanes; supporting state decisions to issue benefits early, rather than on a staggered schedule, so people who evacuated from their homes could buy food immediately; and approving the purchase of hot, ready-to-eat foods with SNAP benefits, temporarily, so that people without access to a kitchen could get a hot meal.
We also want to make sure moms and their young children get the vital nutrition they need, during a time when they need it most. But some hurricane-stricken areas are struggling to provide the specific items designated for WIC food packages due to shortages. Therefore, we’re temporarily allowing substitute items to be purchased to ensure they continue to have food.
FNS is there to help older kids, as well. We worked with Texas, Florida and Georgia to temporarily provide free lunch to all students in disaster areas, taking the stress off both kids and parents as they deal with the recovery. We also gave schools flexibilities with regard to what they serve and when they serve it, making it easier to feed students in hurricane-affected areas. For schools that are still dealing with unexpected closures, FNS has also granted them the option of operating our Summer Meals Programs – regardless of the time of year – to set up a site to provide meals to kids in their community.
And now that many stores have reopened in Texas and Florida, we have approved and are working closely with the states to support the operation of a Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP). D-SNAP provides streamlined and expanded nutrition assistance to eligible households after a disaster. D-SNAP is an important step later in the recovery process; it helps as the commercial channels of food distribution have been restored and families are back in their homes.
USDA stands shoulder to shoulder with our fellow Americans struggling in the path of devastation created by these historic storms. We continue to monitor the situation in all impacted areas and offer any and all assistance available. The back-to-back-to-back punches of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria delivered quite a blow, but FNS is prepared to continue to fight on behalf of all Americans.
For more information on FNS assistance during times of disaster, visit www.fns.usda.gov/disaster.