As hunger surges during the COVID-19 pandemic, millions more in the U.S. have turned to the Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, for relief -- formerly known as food stamps.
And according to food security advocates, if Congress does not reach a deal on a second COVID-19 stimulus bill, conditions for low-income families may become more dire -- particularly for households with children and families of color, who have been disproportionately impacted by hunger, per the latest U.S. Census data.
"Congress has been fighting about an extra stimulus package since the summer and meanwhile, children are going hungry, families are worried about losing their homes," Lisa Davis, senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry Campaign, told ABC News. "If kids continue to go hungry, at this rate, it's because Congress chose this path."
Since the public health crisis hit the U.S. in March, food insecurity has increased in each state, doubling overall and tripling among households with children, according to a June study of USDA data by the Northwestern Institute for Policy Research.
Congress has already taken some steps to address food insecurity, including increasing funding for food banks and giving states flexibility to give families access to the maximum amount of SNAP benefits.
Lawmakers also passed legislation that brought states the option to utilize the Pandemic-EBT program, which provides low-income families with funds to replace free or reduced-price school meals. The program has been extended through the 2020-2021 school year.
But advocates noted that even with these provisions in place, hunger continues to soar. And with key pandemic relief measures like unemployment insurance and a federal eviction moratorium set to expire by the end of the year, they are calling on Congress to do much more.
Since February 2020, there has been about a 15% increase nationally of participation in the SNAP program -- from about 37 million to 43 million by May, according to a study of USDA data by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
"That level of increase nationally is unprecedented. The only other time we saw growth like that was during the Great Recession in 2008, 2009 ... but it took many more months for it to spike that quickly," said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at CBPP.
Carmen Del Guercio, president and CEO of the Maryland Food Bank, said that food banks have been strained as they cope with a declining number of volunteers amid the pandemic and a spike in need.
"We estimate that there's 2.5 million Marylanders in our state who are food insecure. About a million and a half of those were struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic," Del Guercio said, adding that Black and Hispanic communities are facing "a bigger challenge" because they experienced "a higher rate of food insecurity" before COVID-19.
Amid the latest stalemate on Capitol Hill, there are two competing bills on the table.
A GOP-backed $916 billion proposal from the White House was already rejected by Democrats, partly because it cuts funding for unemployment insurance, and a $908 billion proposal by a bipartisan group of senators, which was endorsed by Democratic leaders as a start.
In the bipartisan bill, senators proposed some measures addressing food insecurity, including increased funding for food banks and organizations like Meals on Wheels, an expansion of benefits though the P-EBT program and an increase of SNAP benefits by 15% for four months, which would amount to about an extra $25 per person each month.
"About 40% of families, including the very poorest families on SNAP, were already at the maximum so [the initial] emergency allotment has not helped them," Davis said. "People don't realize how inadequate [SNAP] benefits are, in general. They only average about $1.40 per person, per meal."
It is unclear if lawmakers will reach a deal on COVID-19 relief ahead of the tight holiday deadline and whether it would boost food security measures.
Del Guercio said that even with the initial pandemic relief "supports in place," there was an "increased demand" that will "continue to stay high," even if Congress does pass a new relief bill.
"But we'll take all the help we can get," Del Guercio added.
Regarding the ongoing debate among lawmakers over the cost of the stimulus package, Davis said that the "cost of doing nothing" is "so much more."
"The same children that are experiencing food insecurity, in most cases, are the same kids that face challenges and inequities in accessing online learning. And if we don't take action, we're risking losing a generation of low-income children," Davis said. “Because the consequences of not getting the food they need over these months, and educational support they need will be difficult, if not impossible to overcome.”