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Baltimore leaders ask state for more help ensuring food is accessible during coronavirus shutdowns

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and East Baltimore Del. Stephanie M. Smith are asking Gov. Larry Hogan to put more state resources into making sure food is available for those who need it during the coronavirus pandemic — including a new system to allow participants in a federal food assistance program to purchase food online.

A Hogan spokesman said the federal government has not approved a statewide system to purchase food online, but is looking to speed up a pilot program in development.

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Baltimore City estimates a third of its residents will qualify for federal food assistance in the coming weeks as businesses suspend operations and furlough or layoff workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

The city’s projection is based on the past five years of unemployment data and participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, said Holly Freishtat, the city food policy director. Currently, 166,000 city residents participate in SNAP each month. A total of 200,000 residents used SNAP when the unemployment rate was 7% in 2015, and Freishtat said the city could exceed that within 30 days.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last April that Maryland and six other states would join New York State in a pilot program in which SNAP recipients could purchase groceries online. Baltimore has spent years trying to launch its SNAP pilot, but it’s been delayed “due to federal and state technological issues,” according to a March 31 letter Young sent Hogan.

“My request will likely significantly increase the workload for Maryland’s [electonic benefit transfer] processor ... yet, as you’ve repeatedly stated and shown, the response to the Coronavirus pandemic requires aggressive actions,” Young wrote.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said the USDA has not approved online SNAP use statewide. However, he said, the state Department of Human Services “is exploring the feasibility of accelerating the current implementation schedule" of Baltimore’s pilot due to the pandemic.

Baltimore City has provided over 250,000 meals at 100 meal sites like recreation centers, schools, and public housing over the past two weeks, according to a letter Smith sent Hogan on Sunday.

Even so, Smith said food relief organizations face “unprecedented demand with a dwindling volunteer base.” She told The Sun older adults and disabled residents, who depend on others to help them shop, “have pleaded for help.”

Maryland’s confirmed number of coronavirus cases exceeded 4,300 Tuesday. Public services have been restricted and Hogan has closed nonessential businesses. He also issued a stay-at-home order in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus.

The federal government’s $2 trillion response package is expected to give some SNAP participants more funding than usual in April and May, said Michael Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, but people who already receive the maximum SNAP benefits likely will not receive more money.

Ricci said the state Department of Human Services is providing more than $66 million in additional SNAP benefits to over 319,000 Maryland households in response to COVID-19. The additional funding comes after 84,000 Marylanders filed for unemployment in March, according to the state Department of Labor.

Smith, an assistant director in the city’s Department of Planning, said the online SNAP pilot would give eligible households the ability to stay home and order food without exposing themselves to the virus.

Smith also said she’s “deeply concerned that a lack of state coordination and financial support” to address food insecurity will leave Baltimore residents stuck in their neighborhoods without enough food. Calling hunger “one of the most biologically desperate states you can be in," she stressed that hunger has led to “civil unrest around the world.”

The state Department of Human Services has been targeting a fall 2020 launch for the online SNAP system, according to Young’s letter.

Wilson said he supports online SNAP use, but he thinks Maryland’s program won’t be ready until 2021.

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“While we have pressed [state government] to do as much as they can as fast as they can, I am not optimistic that online SNAP is going to get done in 2020,” Wilson said.

SNAP benefits don’t cover delivery fees, for instance, and Wilson said he doesn’t want SNAP recipients to deal with out-of-pocket costs from online expenses. Wilson said companies like Amazon and Walmart need to waive delivery fees for Maryland SNAP purchases, as they’ve done in other pilot states.

Meanwhile, phone calls for SNAP application assistance have “dramatically increased” at Wilson’s organization since the pandemic began, he said. Wilson said applying for SNAP online can be complicated for people who have difficulty with, or no access to, technology, and local Human Services offices are currently closed.

Marylanders seeking online SNAP application assistance can call Maryland Hunger Solutions toll-free at 1-866-821-5552.

Smith also urged Hogan to establish an emergency food budget prioritizing support for jurisdictions with the highest concentrations of food insecure residents. Additionally, Smith asked the governor to direct the Maryland National Guard to commit more soldiers to support food distribution to communities where food is needed. Only "a fraction” of the soldiers present are being used for food distribution, she said.

“People always need to eat, but we also want to reduce their interactions with one another, so whatever we can do to get food to people that can last a longer period of time can also reduce their need to have to leave their home,” Smith said.

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