Even before COVID-19 was implemented, people with disabilities were more at risk of food insecurity due to higher unemployment rates, lower earnings, and transportation- and accessibility barriers. These disparities were only made worse by the pandemic. In 2020, adults with disabilities were twice as likely to be insecure about food than those without disabilities.
At the root of the issue is poverty, said Mia Ives-Rublee, director of the Center for American Progress’ Disability Justice Initiative and coauthor of a new report on food insecurity in the disabled community during the pandemic. “Disabled people are more likely to be impoverished, so of course that correlates with food access,” she said.
People with disabilities are more vulnerable to unemployment than their non-disabled peers. The report found that 12.6% of disabled adults were affected by a pandemic of joblessness, which occurred when the overall unemployment rate was 7.9%.
According to Census Bureau data from March 2021, 55.7% of Medicare beneficiaries under 65 had insufficient food or were unable access the food they needed, the report found.
Supermarket shopping can be life-threatening for people with disabilities. People who were more economically challenged than others had to struggle for access to diets that were more health-specific, particularly because they can be more costly and because WIC and other food assistance programs like WIC specify what foods they can and cannot purchase.
The report found that some of the needs were alleviated by federal responses to the financial and food insecurity caused the pandemic. The USDA increased SNAP benefits, which was a benefit to all recipients. And work requirements that limit the amount of time during which able-bodied adults without dependents can receive SNAP were waived, broadening the program’s reach. This waiver will expire if the federal government declares a public health emergency.
During the pandemic the USDA also expanded a pilot program that allows SNAP recipients to buy food online. In March 2020, only five states participated. By December 2021, all but one had joined. The program is especially beneficial to people with mobility-related disabilities, and those with compromised immune systems. Still, the report noted, the program’s potential impact was limited by the fact that more than 40% of disabled people over the age of 15 lack internet access at home. Accessibility guidelines are not met by the majority of websites.
The federal government temporarily increased funding for centers that promote independent living for people with disabilities. They were able to temporarily create or expand food programs. Some of these centers used the funds to do things like advising food pantries on how to increase accessibility and deliver food to clients’ homes. Kansas’s center helped people get access to the internet and iPads, so they could order online through SNAP.
IvesRublee stated that these larger programs were outliers. The majority of the centers she contacted for her research were only able to refer people to SNAP. “What surprised me was that many of the programs weren’t doing actual food programs for their clients,” she said. While acknowledging that these centers are often underfunded and understaffed, she said, “Food is one of those essential things to keep people independent and healthy.”
The report made several recommendations for how the federal government could help increase disabled people’s food security, starting with broadening the definition of disability SNAP uses to determine eligibility. The program uses a stricter definition than many others, Ives-Rublee said, which ends up excluding people who aren’t officially considered disabled for SNAP purposes but have disabilities that keep them from meeting the program’s work requirements.
The report also recommended funding for programs that specifically address food insecurity among the disabled, such as those developed at centers for independent living that use pandemic relief funds. It also recommended that SNAP benefits be made available online and that the government enforce accessibility laws.
It also called for better data collection about the extent of food insecurity among the disabled community. “We don’t know how many disabled people are on SNAP,” Ives-Rublee said. Instead, advocates and policymakers end up using rough proxies such as the number who receive certain benefits like Supplemental Security Income to estimate their estimates. Without a clear picture of how many disabled people struggle to get food — and what the primary barriers are — anti-hunger programs will continue failing to meet disabled peoples’ needs, Ives-Rublee said.
“We’ve seen time and time again that programs like WIC and SNAP often create policies that aren’t inclusive of disabled people,” Ives-Rublee said.
Source: Successful Farming