Even before COVID-19 hit, disabled people were at greater risk of food insecurity because of higher rates of unemployment, lower earnings, and transportation and accessibility barriers. The pandemic only exacerbated these disparities. In 2020, disabled adults were twice as likely to be food insecure as adults 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.
Unemployment hit disabled people harder than their nondisabled counterparts. During one pandemic joblessness spike, when the overall unemployment rate was 7.9%, it was 12.6% among disabled adults, the report found.
Meanwhile, 55.7% of disabled Medicare recipients under the age of 65 either did not have enough food or were unable to access the food they wanted, according to Census Bureau data from March 2021 cited in the report.
For people whose disabilities put them at higher risk of serious cases of COVID-19, supermarket shopping became a life-threatening prospect. And increased economic hardship meant people who needed access to health-specific diets struggled more, especially because these diets can be more expensive and because certain food assistance programs, like WIC, specify which foods recipients can and cannot buy.
Federal responses to the food and financial insecurity caused by the pandemic helped alleviate some of the need, the report found. For example, the USDA increased SNAP benefits, which helped 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. That waiver, however, will likely expire when the federal government declares the end of the public health emergency.
During the pandemic, the USDA also expanded a pilot program that lets SNAP recipients buy food online. In March 2020, just five states participated; by December 2021, all but three did. The program is particularly helpful to people with mobility-related disabilities and 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. And the vast majority of websites do not meet accessibility guidelines.
The federal government also temporarily increased funding for centers for independent living, which serve disabled people in their communities, 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. A center in Kansas helped people get internet access and iPads so they could take advantage of the SNAP online ordering program.
But these more extensive programs were outliers, Ives-Rublee said. Most of the centers she contacted in her research for the report were only referring 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 more funding for programs that specifically aim to address food insecurity among disabled people, like the ones that were developed at centers for independent living using pandemic relief funding. It likewise advocated expanding the program that allows SNAP benefits to be used online while urging the government to enforce the laws around accessibility for websites.
And it called for better data collection on the extent of food insecurity in the disabled community. “We don’t know how many disabled people are on SNAP,” Ives-Rublee said. Instead, policymakers and advocates end up basing estimates on rough proxies, such as the number of people who receive certain benefits, like Supplemental Security Income. 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.