FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Lawsuit says USDA’s SNAP emergency allotment denials violate the Families First Coronavirus Response Act
SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is illegally denying emergency food aid to those most in need, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today in San Francisco. Plaintiffs Robin Hall and Steven Summers represent a proposed class of Californians with the lowest incomes seeking an immediate injunction of USDA guidance that denies them emergency food assistance via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, Calfresh in California). The plaintiffs and the class are represented by Western Center on Law & Poverty and the Impact Fund.
In response to the public health crisis presented by COVID-19, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March of this year. The Act sought to address rising food insecurity and hunger with significant additional resources for SNAP recipients. Specifically, the Act authorized USDA to issue additional payments to all households currently receiving SNAP benefits, which states must apply for. When California applied for the emergency aid, USDA denied the additional benefits for individuals and families already receiving the regular maximum allotment, or in other words, those with the least income.
“The cost of food has increased across the United States and here in California during the pandemic,” says Alexander Prieto, a senior litigator for Western Center on Law & Poverty. “The idea that people who were already struggling to get by before the crisis should not receive the additional help being granted to other SNAP recipients is cruel and absurd. It goes against the intent of the Families First Act, which is why we are seeking relief for our clients.”
The complaint alleges that USDA is illegally denying emergency food aid to the poorest households in California, and seeks to stop USDA from preventing California from providing emergency allotments for the plaintiffs and others in the class.
Both plaintiffs, Robin Hall and Steven Summers, are single adults in high risk groups for complications from COVID-19, who have been denied emergency food benefits. Both have decreased access to food due to the pandemic.
People with very low incomes, like Ms. Hall and Mr. Summers, face the greatest risk of hunger and food insecurity during the COVID crisis. They are less likely to have food reserves on hand to avoid frequent grocery trips, and more likely to rely on food banks, free meal providers, and other emergency channels for food distribution, which are currently overextended, under-resourced, or closed altogether.
“I’m using what savings I have to try to keep up with these rising food costs. After that, there isn’t enough left to pay rent and utilities,” says Mr. Summers. “If I’m having a hard time, I know others are too. We can’t control what this pandemic is doing to the cost of living, with all that’s going on, we need expanded benefits to help with the rising cost of everything, including food.”
One of the most immediate and urgent problems arising from the pandemic is hunger. Food prices are higher, many food staples are scarce, and shelter-in-place orders make food less accessible, particularly for those most vulnerable to the health risks of the coronavirus.
“We are simply asking USDA to do the right thing,” said Lindsay Nako, Director of Litigation and Training at Impact Fund. “The federal government has a responsibility to make sure people in this country do not go hungry during this pandemic. USDA needs to do its part.”
The complaint can be read here.
Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org
Teddy Basham-Witherington, twitherington[at]impactfund.org
We provide strategic leadership and support for litigation to achieve economic and social justice. We provide funds for impact litigation in the areas of civil rights, environmental justice, and poverty law. We offer innovative technical support, training, and expertise on issues that arise in large scale impact litigation. We serve as lead counsel, co-counsel, and amicus counsel in select class action and impact litigation.
About Western Center on Law & Poverty
Western Center on Law & Poverty fights for justice and system-wide change to secure housing, health care, racial justice and a strong safety net for low-income Californians. Western Center attains real-world, policy solutions for clients through litigation, legislative and policy advocacy, and technical assistance and legal support for the state’s legal aid programs. Western Center is California’s oldest and largest legal services support center.