Over the past year, Nevadans have struggled to feed themselves and their families, a challenge that was only complicated by rising food prices, continued high unemployment, and school meal disruptions brought on by the pandemic.
Nevada was ranked eighth among states with the highest projected overall food insecurity rate per household for 2021 at 15.2%, a slight improvement from 17% in 2020, but far below the pre-pandemic level in 2019 of 12%, according to a report from a national nonprofit network of food banks.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken steps during the pandemic to stabilize food and nutrition security for Nevada families— especially those who have been historically underserved— through a host of programs to assist those in need.
“2021 again offered unparalleled challenges to Americans and institutions like the USDA dedicated to serving them in whatever circumstances they may face – most especially hunger and nutrition insecurity,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement.
USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Cindy Long last week highlighted the Biden-Harris administration’s first-year accomplishments to combat food insecurity among communities of color, low-income households, and other vulnerable populations.
Nevada directly benefited from a number of programs and initiatives implemented by the department of agriculture in 2021, said administrators.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP – is the largest federal food assistance program and one of the most effective tools for helping low-income households access healthy food, said Long, adding that SNAP benefits are especially critical for historically marginalized communities and households with children, which are more likely to face hunger.
In Nevada, Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) benefits increased SNAP assistance by about 15% and delivered almost $500 million in benefits for more than 300,000 low-income and food-insecure children that missed out on free meals when schools and childcare in Nevada closed due to the pandemic.
“It’s an EBT program that–in the vast majority of cases–doesn’t even require the family to apply. It’s a very low burden to families and therefore we believe we’ve been very successful in reaching eligible populations across the board,” Long said, listing the program as one of the most successful during the pandemic.
There was a lot of uncertainty around the potential success of the quickly implemented P-EBT program, said Long, however the lessons learned from the multiple agencies coordinating together “has broader applications” for future programs.
Updated emergency SNAP benefits, meant to target households receiving less than $95 in benefits under the previous policy, also resulted in Nevada getting $67 million in additional benefits over six months.
Additionally, Nevada received $2.5 million in SNAP improvement grants that will help state administrators analyze their project’s impact on racial equity and inclusion. With the grant funding Nevada will be able to expand data sharing efforts to better identify trends and support data-driven decisions on the operation of SNAP, say state administrators.
The USDA also gave 46 States and the District of Columbia the option to use SNAP benefits to purchase groceries online at thousands of stores. Nevada SNAP administrators quickly took advantage of the option, which they say has allowed the most vulnerable communities to have food safely delivered to their homes and reduced barriers to food access.
“We had been piloting online purchases for SNAP on a fairly small scale prior to the pandemic,” Long said. “But then people across the country suddenly saw the benefits of shopping online and we were, understandably, pressured to enhance those options for SNAP.”
Nationally, about 6% of all SNAP benefits are now redeemed online, said Long, and the agency expects that figure to continue growing.
Supply chain disruptions negatively impacted school meal programs nationwide, said administrators, including in Nevada. Over the holidays, the USDA announced they would allocate $8 million to school meal programs in Nevada to help them overcome pandemic-related supply chain challenges that have made it harder to serve kids meals.
“We’ve also tried to provide other support to schools dealing with supply chain challenges and that includes the flexibility to go to other suppliers when contracts fell through,” Long said.
Earlier this school year, the USDA provided Nevada a little more than $14 million through the Child and Adult Care Food Program to help cover Nevada’s nutrition program costs during the pandemic, said long.
One consistent feature among the programs implemented by the USDA this year was “adaptability,” said Long.
“At every level, the state, local, and federal governments have really adapted really quickly to running these programs in a very different environment,” she said.
The federal government has also worked to improve nutrition assistance and food sovereignty for tribal communities.
Starting with the CARES Act and continuing through subsequent federal relief legislation, funds to support tribal programs flowed to Nevada, said Long. Targeted funding for food distribution on reservations were provided to the Nevada Department of Agriculture and three Nevada-based tribes: the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of Duck Valley Indian Reservation, the Yerington Paiute Tribe, and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service also awarded $3.5 million to eight tribal nations in order to give tribes more control over how they operate food distribution on reservations in a way that meets their localized needs. While no tribes in Nevada applied for the “self-determination demonstration program”, Long said the department is interested in continuing the program in some form and welcomes Nevada tribes to apply in the future.
“It’s our expectation that we will be able to find additional funds and continue,” Long said. “Our hope is that we can learn some lessons from the first project and move forward from there.”
“We found that the process of working with tribal nations through the grant writing process and working with them on their plans showed tremendous potential, and we are committed to the fundamental goal of these projects which is getting tribal nations greater food sovereignty.”
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