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Spurred on by Pandemic, Lawmakers Seek to Address Hunger, Nutrition

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Del. Dolores McQuinn (D-Richmond) is sponsoring a bill to study setting up a prescription pilot program in Virginia, something that has the support of 16 state-wide organizations. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Roughly one in ten Virginians live in food insecurity, often skipping meals or unsure where their next meal will come from. At least that was the case before the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the nation, driving the state economy into a recession that has disproportionately impacted the poor. 

It’s too early to say exactly how many Virginians went hungry during the pandemic, but research from Northwestern University estimates the rate more than doubled, with 22.5% suffering from food insecurity. 

That number is likely even higher among Black and Hispanic people in the commonwealth. According to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Black and Hispanic families were nearly twice as likely to report food insecurity. 

But some Virginians may soon be getting long-awaited relief, with a bill from Del. Dan Helmer(D-Fairfax) seeking to reform the state’s eligibility criteria for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

Currently, Virginia has the strictest possible eligibility requirements, limiting assistance only to families that make up to 130% of the federal poverty limit access to the benefit. If Helmer’s bill becomes law, that limit would rise up to 200%, raising the maximum income for a family of four from $34,060 to $52,400. 

The Virginia Poverty Law Center estimated in 2017 that the expansion could provide SNAP benefits to an additional 25,000 households. But Salaam Bhatti, an attorney with VPLC, says that number has increased. 

“That 25,000 is a bare minimum. We are looking at an increase, a huge increase of people who are hungry now because of these two crises,” he said. “But it’s also important to realize that when you look at the 2017 numbers, people have been going hungry needlessly in Virginia.”

The bill passed the House of Delegates unanimously on Monday. It now moves over to the state Senate.

That’s not the only change the bill would make, however. It also seeks to remove the asset test for accessing the benefits, which Bhatti says prevents people from saving money to escape poverty. Currently, any family with more than $2,250 in assets, and no one who is disabled or older than 60, is barred from receiving the assistance. 

“The big goal of removing the resource test is for people to save up enough to get out of poverty,” he said. “Having resources less than $2,250 is not helping anybody. That’s a few months of rent. That is nowhere near a pillow.”

Another provision of the bill intended to help more people escape poverty is a change to the work requirement. Anyone who accesses benefits from SNAP or a similar program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is required to find employment or risk losing their benefits. But, if the bill becomes law, they would be eligible as full or part-time students.

“Sometimes people have to take jobs that are not where they should be getting jobs, and usually these jobs are low wages and is just something for them to do so they can qualify,” Bhatti said. “If we waited a few extra months, maybe even a year or two, for them to get the education and training they need to get better jobs, then it’s a win-win situation for both the state and for that participant.”

This provision hopes to help not only adults looking to gain new skills, but also young people attending college right out of high school. In a 2019 survey from the Hope Center at Temple University of 167,000 college students, nearly 40% reported recent food insecurity.

Julia Billingsley is the policy director at Virginia 21, a nonprofit that works to empower young adults to become political advocates. She says hunger can prevent students from reaching their full potential. 

“There’s a significant link between hunger and cognitive function,” she said. “If you think of full-time students, education is their full-time job. It’s pretty concerning if they’re skipping meals.”

Hunger isn’t the only issue at stake. Billingsley says students struggling to pay for food often opt for cheap, readily available meals that lack nutritional value.

“If they’re choosing to save money instead of eating healthy, because we know that a lot of processed and fast foods are a lot cheaper in the short term than some healthier and whole food produce… that really shows up a lot in the classroom and in grades,” she says.

That’s a claim that has backing from the American Heart Association, who is also standing behind the bill. 

“The basis of it is being able to ensure that all Americans, all Virginians have access to nutritious fruits and vegetables,” said Chelsi Bennett, the Virginia government relations director for the AHA.

That’s where another bill, from Del. Dolores McQuinn (D-Richmond), steps in. She’s proposing a pilot prescription produce program. While doctors may have been telling patients for years to get more fruits and vegetables in their diet, under this program they could now write a prescription for them, which patients could then turn in for a discount on fresh, frozen or canned produce. 

“Food as medicine is a term that we hear from many different organizations, so we do believe it’s a part of the piece of living a healthier life,” Bennett said. “Will there be medications that different heart patients, stroke patients have to take, absolutely. Does that have to be the only way for them to be able to live a healthier life? Absolutely not.”

McQuinn’s bill has changed in scope slightly, with the Appropriations committee amending it to start out as a study. It is set to be heard by the full House on Thursday. 

Sixteen different statewide organizations are standing behind the proposal, including the Virginia Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Sarah Collins, a registered dietician with the organization, says the program would serve as a bridge between food and health care providers. 

“I think you could ask pretty much anyone, and they can tell you fruits and vegetables are good for you, but it’s difficult sometimes to actually make that jump from knowing they’re good for you to being able to actually eat it,” she said

Similar programs have proven effective in helping people make that jump. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that people participating in a prescription produce program were about 10% more likely to get their daily recommended amount of vegetables.

Bennett says cost is a major factor in preventing people from getting produce, but she also acknowledges that for many, taste plays a role as well. But, she said she hopes lowering the cost will incentivize people to try out new vegetables and find the ones they like.

“First, give them a try. Try new vegetables,” she said. “Two, I would share, try different seasonings and herbs… You can have delicious vegetables without a lot of salt. There’s so many different other seasonings and herbs out there.”

Collins recommends people not only experiment with seasonings, but with different ways of cooking too. Her favorite way to cook vegetables: roasting. 

“Things that I didn't like in my teen years I now love. For example, I used to hate brussel sprouts, but trying them multiple times and cooked different ways, which I think is very key, makes a big difference,” Collins said. “Toss it in olive oil, maybe a little salt and pepper, and roast it in the oven. That makes vegetables usually get a little bit more caramelized and people tend to like it alot better that way.”

Both bills have enjoyed unanimous support in the legislature so far, but must still clear the state Senate before making their way to the governor’s desk. 

Connor Scribner is a former VPM News assistant editor.
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