The U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to waive eligibility requirements for its emergency food assistance program in Pennsylvania – the “epicenter” of the nation’s skyrocketing jobless claims amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Some 835,000 residents have applied for unemployment compensation as of Sunday, according to the Department of Labor and Industry. Gov. Tom Wolf urged the federal government last week to waive eligibility requirements for its Emergency Food Assistance Program and give the state freedom to operate a Disaster Household Distribution program that would alleviate the strain on local food banks.
“Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians have applied for unemployment compensation after just two weeks of COVID-19 mitigation efforts,” Wolf said. “I’m incredibly grateful for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s acknowledgment of our need to feed Pennsylvania. This waiver lifts a weight off the shoulders of our food banks and families across the commonwealth.”
The approval gives the state Department of Agriculture and its partners more leeway to distribute a larger variety of foods to “those most affected by the closure of non-life-sustaining businesses in Pennsylvania.”
“The unified, bipartisan support we saw as we pushed for this waiver is proof that we’re truly all in this together,” Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said. “We will overcome this trial; and until that day, we will work hand in hand – figuratively, of course – to provide for the Pennsylvanians who are sacrificing so much for the sake of protecting their neighbors.”
Wolf ordered the statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses on March 23 under the threat of enforcement action. State police have issued more than 100 warnings to noncompliant businesses in the week since.
On Monday, he said the mandate would remain in place indefinitely. Schools would likewise remain closed for the foreseeable future as the federal government extends its social distancing guidelines until April 30.
The tightening restrictions on public life will strain the state’s agriculture industry – where many life-sustaining businesses continue operations. Redding urged residents last week to resist panic buying and stockpiling food, especially as mounting unemployment heightens food insecurity.
“Quite simply, no Pennsylvanian should ever go hungry. Especially during this disruptive time of COVID-19 mitigation efforts,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to provide guidance to the agriculture industry to ensure that healthy food continues to flow to grocery stores and food banks; and guidance for those who volunteer their time at banks to do so safely, protecting their health and the health of those who come for assistance.”