FNS Blog: FNS’ Role in Disaster Response
A temporary USDA D-SNAP sign is seen at the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources building.

By USDA Food and Nutrition Service

Ensuring access to nutritious food is critically important when emergencies and disasters happen. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is prepared to work with states and with other federal agencies to support both immediate response, and longer-term recovery efforts.

In the immediate aftermath of a Presidentially declared disaster, affected states can provide USDA Foods from non-emergency programs like school meals to disaster relief agencies like the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army for congregate feeding sites.

These voluntary organizations have the expertise and manpower to provide food to survivors at shelters and mass feeding sites. In addition, with approval from USDA, a household distribution program can be operated when conditions warrant it to provide boxes of nutritious food to hungry families.

At the same time, we can offer a range of operational flexibilities for other nutrition assistances to ensure that they can operate efficiently in a disaster environment.

The timing and conditions of D-SNAP vary with the circumstances of each disaster, but the program always begins after access to retailers has been restored and families are able to purchase food to prepare at home. Before operating D-SNAP in an approved county, the state must ensure that conditions related to safety and readiness are in place. While State agencies must request FNS approval to operate D-SNAP, FNS provides technical assistance so that the state can tailor its response to the needs of the disaster-affected communities.

If a household in the affected area qualifies for D-SNAP, they could receive one month of benefits to meet their food needs as they settle back home following the disaster. Households in the approved areas that already receive SNAP benefits will automatically receive disaster supplements, up to the maximum allotment for their household size, and do not need to apply for D-SNAP. Households are issued D-SNAP benefits through an electronic benefits transfer card (EBT card), which is used like a debit card to purchase food at authorized retailers.

As part of an effort to proactively strengthen program integrity and ensure program access within D-SNAP, FNS reached out to our state partners to solicit their recommendations. FNS convened a meeting of states including California, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Texas, and West Virginia, all of whom had recently operated D-SNAP. The state representatives were able to discuss concerns, interests, and best practices with regards to D-SNAP. During the two-day meeting, the groups reviewed statutory language and D-SNAP policy guidance, and discussed such topics as state readiness assessments, service delivery to special populations, benefit issuance, and training needs.

Here are some examples of the changes FNS is making:

Needs Assessment: States recommended that FNS require State agencies to conduct a needs assessment of the damage caused by the disaster when requesting to operate a D-SNAP. This needs assessment could include onsite Federal/ State team assessments, utility company information, flood maps, FEMA assessments, or other information. FNS plans to revise the guidance to reflect this recommendation.

Single Month Issuance of D-SNAP Benefits: States recommended that FNS provide one month of D-SNAP benefits initially with an option for State agencies to request an additional month of benefits with a continued demonstrated need. FNS will revise the guidance accordingly to make it clear that FNS will no longer approve two months of benefits initially.

D-SNAP training: States requested that FNS provide additional trainings or webinars that provide an overview of D-SNAP operations to partners. This effort should also include talking points for state agencies. FNS will establish webinars, trainings, and talking points and post them on the FNS website.

Connecting with and listening to our partners to better serve our customers is how today’s USDA does business. Through these improvements, small and large, we will continue to improve our ability to reach everyone who needs food assistance as a result of a disaster.