After a disaster, the government plays a large role in making sure that the people affected are fed. First, the President must declare a state of emergency, authorizing the use of federal funds for relief efforts. (For more information on the disaster declaration process, click here.) Then, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the nation’s domestic nutrition assistance programs, such as SNAP (food stamps) and the National School Lunch Program, is able to provide two types of disaster assistance: USDA Foods and the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP).
USDA Foods are commodity foods that can be used for congregate feeding or household distribution. Congregate feeding usually takes place in settings like emergency shelters or soup kitchens; the commodity food that the government provides is cooked and served to people who were affected by the disaster. Less often, commodity foods are distributed for household use, but this generally happens only when congregate feeding or the use of food stamps are not practical, such as in remote or isolated areas, or if commercial channels of food distribution have been interrupted and people are not able to buy food at grocery stores with their SNAP benefits.
The Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) offers short-term food assistance benefits to families suffering in the wake of a disaster. In order for people in a disaster area to receive D-SNAP, the President must first issue a disaster declaration of Individual Assistance. Then, state agencies request FNS approval to operate D-SNAP for a limited period of time (typically 7 days), and once this approval is given, individuals who live in the affected states, counties, or zip codes may apply for benefits.
The benefit to D-SNAP is that is it is relatively quick, efficient and flexible. The application process is simplified and people who are eligible receive a month’s worth of benefits on their EBT cards within 72 hours, allowing them to purchase food at most grocery stores. Families who are not normally eligible for SNAP may qualify for D-SNAP as a result of their disaster-related expenses, such as loss of income, damage to property, relocation expenses, or loss of food due to power outages. Additionally, households who receive less than the monthly maximum amount for SNAP can request the maximum level of benefits in times of disaster.
To receive D-SNAP, households that already receive SNAP do not need to apply in person or interview, though they do need to sign and return paperwork within 10 days. People who do not receive SNAP and are applying for D-SNAP must do so in person, completing the application and an interview.
State agencies can also ask FNS to waive certain regulations. Common waivers include:
- Hot Foods - allows people to buy prepared food with SNAP benefits, which normally is not allowed. This makes sense when disaster conditions make it difficult to cook food.
- Mass Replacement – allows the state agency to automatically replace a percentage of people’s SNAP benefits without requiring them to submit paperwork. (This does not, however, pre-empt those who request a month’s worth of benefits from receiving them.)
- Timely Reporting – extends the amount of time that people have to request D-SNAP benefits, since transportation and communication are often hindered after a disaster.
For more information on D-SNAP, please see the FNS Disasters webpage (which is updated with info on FNS response to Hurricane Sandy) or contact your state’s SNAP information hotline. You can also find the locations of local SNAP offices here. The FEMA website also lists disaster resources.
For an in-depth understanding of D-SNAP, WhyHunger recommends Food Research and Action Center’s An Advocate’s Guide to the Disaster Food Stamp Program and USDA’s Disaster SNAP Guidance handbook.