As soon as the pandemic broke out, my office grew increasingly concerned with the large number of our constituents who faced the prospect of food insecurity. We heard desperate stories of need from those who had lost incomes, so we worked to increase support for food banks, identified places where those impacted financially by the pandemic could get help, and volunteered at a local site that serves those in need.
As the pandemic continues to rage and the economic recovery leaves many behind, food insecurity has increased by 50% in our commonwealth, impacting nearly 1.3 million Virginians.
To address rising hunger in Virginia and building on recent work by Governor Ralph Northam’s Administration, several colleagues and I have introduced Virginia House Bill 1820, which expands access to food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to an estimated 25,000 families making the children in those families eligible for free school meals and better able to learn.
The bill also supports wage growth eliminating so called “cliff effects” in Virginia’s current program by which a small increase in income results in immediate loss of benefits.
Our bill will also improve access to SNAP and other programs for college students. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice’s research shows that even before COVID-19, 39% (or more) of today’s college students were experiencing food insecurity and many have lost their jobs during the pandemic. The Virginia State Council of Higher Education tracks SNAP eligibility and utilization by Virginia college students. Over the 2015-16 academic year they estimated that approximately 77,000 Virginia students were eligible for SNAP. Of these students only 16,000 received SNAP in the fall and an even smaller number, 11,000, received it all academic year.
It is counterproductive to deny students access to food support as hunger causes a host of negative health consequences that impede a student’s ability to attend and complete college. SNAP, and other public benefits, such as access to child care, can increase students’ financial stability and improve a student’s likelihood of completing degrees or certificates. Those students who graduate, in turn, are far more likely to obtain higher paying and more stable jobs. They are less likely to become reliant on public benefits in the future.
Our bill is not just good for the hungry. It’s also good for Virginia’s bottom line. For years, Virginia’s SNAP policies have left millions of federal dollars untapped; and our bill will bring those dollars to the Commonwealth. At the same time, our bill saves our state on the cost of administering the SNAP program. Critically, HB 1820 would not just bring in federal dollars and eliminate red tape, but also generate an estimated $10.5 million annually in new economic activity, helping to create jobs and sustain our small businesses even as we feed the hungry.
Many other states have implemented similar changes, while using federal dollars to do so. Virginia, on the other hand, has ranked 47th of 50 states in leveraging access to federal programs to feed the hungry. Streamlining access to public programs, like SNAP, and expanding eligibility to people in need will bring Virginia ahead where it has fallen behind. With House Bill 1820, we have the rare opportunity to pass a bill that has no downsides and no tradeoffs in support of Virginia’s people and economy -- at virtually no cost to the state.
I’m looking forward to working together with colleagues from both parties to take a major step toward ending hunger in our commonwealth.
Dan Helmer is the delegate for the 40th District, encompassing portions of Fairfax and Prince William counties. A Democrat, businessman, and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is a reserve member of the United States Army. Use of his military rank, job titles, and photographs in uniform does not imply endorsement by the United States Army or the Department of Defense.