Federal Food Assistance in Disasters: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
CRS Report for Congress
Federal Food Assistance in Disasters:
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
Updated February 23, 2006
Domestic Social Policy Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Federal Food Assistance in Disasters:
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
The Food Stamp program, child nutrition programs, and federally donated food
commodities delivered through relief organizations provide major support in
disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Existing laws authorize the Agriculture
Department to change eligibility and benefit rules to facilitate emergency aid, and,
in the short term, funding and federally provided food commodities are available
without the need for additional appropriations.
With regard to the Katrina and Rita hurricanes, numerous food assistance
program rules were waived — e.g., granting one to three months of food stamp
benefits to affected households, authorizing free school meals to affected children,
and greatly easing eligibility documentation requirements.
However, Congress faced a number of issues with regard to the longer term —
e.g., who should pay for extra administrative costs, whether to extend the application
of disaster rules beyond one to three months, costs associated with replenishing
commodity stocks used to help hurricane victims, additional funding for the Special
Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (the WIC
program) in affected areas, how to deal with those made temporarily eligible (like
some noncitizens normally barred from participation in food stamps), and whether
to increase normal benefits and further loosen eligibility rules for those affected.
Several bills were introduced in response to the hurricanes (S. 1695 and H.R.
3809 were the most prominent). They were intended to expand on the steps already
taken by the Administration. For example, they would have lengthened the period
during which disaster rules apply, further eased eligibility and benefit rules for food
stamps, and mandated extra money to support the distribution of food commodities
and the WIC program.
But in the end, no significant action was taken, other than (1) small one-time
increases in appropriations (totaling to $10 million) to replenish some commodity
stocks used for hurricane-relief purposes and pay for commodity distribution costs,
and (2) a $120 million transfer of funding from food stamp appropriations to support
extra child nutrition costs.
This version is the final report on food assistance related to the 2005 hurricanes,
and will not be updated.
In troduction ..................................................1
What Executive and Congressional Entities
What Are The Legislative Authorities
for Food Assistance in Disasters?.............................2
What Funding is Available?......................................2
What Was Done with Regard to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?...........2
Child Nutrition Programs....................................4
The WIC Program.........................................5
What Was the Scale of Federal Support?...........................5
Legislation and Appropriations...................................7
Federal Food Assistance in Disasters:
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
There are a number of federal food assistance efforts that can provide help in the
case of disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The most important are the Food
Stamp program, child nutrition programs (e.g., school meal programs), and federally
donated food commodities delivered through relief organizations and emergency1
shelters/congregate feeding sites. In addition, The Emergency Food Assistance
Program (TEFAP), the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), and the
Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) can play a limited role,
if they have commodities available and providers are geographically positioned to
help. Authorities under the Food Stamp Act, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief
and Emergency Assistance Act, and Agriculture Department laws relating to the
acquisition of commodities provide the Department with the ability to change
program rules and acquire and distribute food in response to disasters.
What Executive and Congressional Entities
All the above-noted efforts are under the aegis of the federal Agriculture
Department (USDA); states also have very important administrative roles (although,2
in many cases, they must ask for federal action to change program rules).
Congressional committee jurisdiction is divided. In the Senate, the Agriculture,
Nutrition, and Forestry Committee has jurisdiction over legislation relating to all the
above-mentioned programs. In the House, legislative jurisdiction is split. The House
Agriculture Committee has authority over laws relating to food stamps, donated
commodities, TEFAP, the CSFP, and the FDPIR, while the Committee on Education
and the Workforce has jurisdiction over child nutrition and WIC programs (and, to
a limited extent, food commodities donated through child nutrition programs). As
to appropriations, the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittees
have responsibility for the aforementioned programs.
1 Other avenues of potential government food assistance outside the Agriculture
Department’s jurisdiction include the Emergency Food and Shelter program, operated
through local entities serving the homeless that receive Federal Emergency Management
Administration (FEMA) grants, and meal programs supported through the Older Americans
Act. However, these programs are not normally set up to provide substantial aid in
2 The lead USDA agency is the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).
What Are The Legislative Authorities
for Food Assistance in Disasters?
The Food Stamp Act and the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency
Assistance Act contain broad authority for the Secretary of Agriculture to waive
normal program rules in the case of disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They
allow the Secretary of Agriculture to greatly liberalize (or abrogate) eligibility and
administrative rules, as well as most stipulations as to how states are held
accountable for errors in program administration. However, they do not permit
waiver of some important rules like state cost-sharing requirements.
In addition, the Secretary has the authority to acquire and distribute food in the
case of disasters. These can be newly acquired commodities (using the money and
commodities provided through Section 32 of the act of August 24, 1935, and the
Commodity Credit Corporation) and food diverted from federal, state, and local
stocks normally used for school meal programs, TEFAP, the CSFP, and the FDPIR.
What Funding is Available?
Most federally supported food assistance — food stamps, child nutrition
programs, and commodity distribution — is treated as entitlement (i.e, mandatory)
funding. This means that federal funding is effectively guaranteed for any benefit
paid under the program. These programs have large contingency funds and the
authority to transfer significant sums among programs to carry out this guarantee,
making special new appropriations generally unnecessary. However, in the longer
term, new appropriations are typically needed to replenish some commodity stocks
diverted to disaster needs. Separately, (1) the WIC program is discretionary, and any
new federal support above its $125 million contingency fund would require an
appropriation, (2) distribution costs for USDA-provided commodities may need new
appropriations, and (3) any newly incurred commodity distribution costs under the
CSFP, TEFAP, and FDPIR may require added appropriations.
What Was Done with Regard to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?
Food Stamps. Under the Food Stamp Act, states (which administer the Food
Stamp program) are required to have a plan for dealing with disasters that disrupt the
normal course of commerce. However, they must request (from the Agriculture
Department’s Food and Nutrition Service) approval of changes in their food stamp
rules to deal with a disaster.
The act also requires that the federal government (1) establish temporary
emergency standards of eligibility for the duration of a disaster that disrupts
commercial channels of food distribution, (2) have a Food Stamp Disaster Task
Force, (3) provide for emergency benefits to pay for food lost in a disaster, (4) adjust
food stamp eligibility and benefit rules consistent with the conditions in the affected
areas, and (5) waive penalties for administrative errors (e.g., eligibility
determinations) made during the disaster. Under these procedures, normal food
stamp eligibility requirements — including financial, work and other (application,
reporting, and other non-financial) requirements — can effectively be waived and
most, if not all, applicant and recipient households in (or from) an affected area given
at least a full month’s maximum food stamp benefit.
The Agriculture Department approved special eligibility and administrative
rules for dealing with households affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in
Louisiana, Mississippi, southern Alabama, and Texas. In all cases, (1) food stamp
work requirements were waived (for one to three months), (2) applicants were not
asked non-financial questions that normally would affect their eligibility (e.g., their
citizen or postsecondary student status), and (3) verification of eligibility was
postponed through December 2005. In addition, (1) the regular food stamp rule
barring the use of benefits to purchase hot prepared foods was waived, (2) those
receiving congregate meals were not barred from also getting food stamps, (3) states
were authorized to “pre-load” food stamp electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards
(used to access benefits) for applicants from affected areas with $50 worth of benefits
before applications were completely processed, (4) special rules were established to
facilitate processing EBT cards when electronic communications were interrupted,
(5) affected households could apply separately from those they might temporarily
reside with (so that they could get full benefits), (6) states were held harmless for any
errors they made in judging eligibility or benefits, (7) states that contributed
eligibility workers to process applicants were paid 100% of their costs (using FEMA
funds), (8) FEMA assistance was not considered when judging eligibility and
benefits, and (9) normal rules pro-rating benefits from the time of application were
waived (allowing full-month benefits to be issued no matter when applied for).
As to household eligibility under Hurricane Katrina/Rita rules:
!For newly applying households in affected areas who were not
evacuees, “normal” disaster assistance program rules applied once
a state’s plan was approved. Under these rules, one-month’s
maximum benefits for the appropriate household size typically were
issued using expedited (benefits within seven days) procedures.3
Applicants had to — without the need to specifically document —
claim residence in an affected area, and claim damage to their
homes, expenses related to protecting their homes, lost income as
the result of the disaster, or no access to bank accounts or other
financial resources.4 Regular food stamp income and asset limits
were used (claimed, without the need to immediately verify).
Monthly gross income had to be under 130% of the federal income
poverty level, and liquid assets had to be less than $2,000 (or $3,000
for elderly/disabled persons). But when judging eligibility and
calculating a benefit, maximum “deductions” were used (this
increased benefits based on a household’s expenses), only accessible
liquid resources were counted when determining household assets,
and counted income was reduced by any disaster-related expenses
not expected to be immediately reimbursed. Non-evacuee
3 This one-month maximum benefit rule was, in many cases, extended to three months.
4 Affected persons also may apply as homeless households (under normal food stamp rules)
and receive special treatment.
households in the affected areas already participating in the Food
Stamp program automatically got a one-month supplement that
brought their benefit to the maximum for their household size. For
both new and currently participating households in the affected
areas, eligibility and benefits after the first month typically were
calculated using regular food stamp program rules (with postponed
verification), although they could often claim losses of income and
assets, and increased expenses, that effectively brought them to the
maximum benefit level.
!For evacuees in states other than Texas (including those who did not
leave their own state), a different rule applied. States provided
expedited services, treated the applicant household separately from
those with whom they are staying, and provided one month of
maximum benefits for the appropriate household size. Eligibility
was based simply on evacuee status and effectively extended for
three months, and, if no documentation was available, self-
declaration by the applicant was allowed. After the first month,
benefits were based on regular food stamp rules (although
verification of eligibility was postponed, evacuee households
continued to be treated as separate from those they lived with, and
application of work rules was put off).
!For evacuees in Texas, the Agriculture Department approved a
special waiver for evacuees effectively making any evacuee
household automatically eligible for up to three months of maximum
benefits. After this period, they were treated as noted above for
evacuees in other states.
Food stamp benefits are issued through “electronic benefit transfer” (EBT) cards
that work like debit cards. EBT cards issued in any part of the United States are
usable in other states and can be replaced or replenished with new benefits.
However, households qualifying for food stamps must have a place (e.g., a grocery
store) that can transact their EBT card. In a disaster situation this can be difficult,
and households qualifying for benefits may have no place to use them. In this case,
the Agriculture Department provided food commodities (discussed below).
Child Nutrition Programs. Child nutrition programs — the School Lunch
and Breakfast programs, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and the
Summer Food Service program — do not have specific legislative provisions dealing
with emergencies/disasters. But the Secretary of Agriculture used the Robert T.
Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to waive rules relating to
eligibility for free meals served under these programs and other program
The Agriculture Department (1) allowed schools in affected areas to serve all
meals free (with accompanying federal subsidies), (2) exempted schools and other
meal providers in affected areas from normal meal pattern requirements, (3)
permitted evacuee children to be considered homeless and eligible for free federally
subsidized meals/snacks, (4) allowed summer program operations (providing free
meals) to extend beyond September, and (5) temporarily waived various
administrative and financial accountability/reporting rules. In addition, states were
effectively allowed to designate any facility as an emergency shelter (all children and
disabled adults in these shelters can receive federally subsidized free meals/snacks),
and rules governing federal subsidies for meals/snacks served in day care centers,
family day care homes, and after-school programs were relaxed to allow support for
free meals/snacks served to affected children (effectively treating them as homeless).
In all of the above cases, those getting emergency food stamp benefits were
automatically eligible for free meals/snacks served by a participating school, summer
program, day care center/home, or after-school program, and normal eligibility
documentation requirements were waived.
The WIC Program. As with child nutrition programs, the WIC program has
no specific legislative authority relating to emergency/disaster assistance. However,
the Secretary of Agriculture used the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and
Emergency Assistance Act to waive various rules.
The Department waived most rules governing eligibility documentation, ruled
that WIC vouchers can be used by evacuees at any vendor (without regard to the state
of issuance), and made clear that evacuee applicants can apply immediately for5
benefits (no durational residency requirement). However, it is important to note that
the WIC program is a grant program limited by its appropriation, and a given state
(e.g., Louisiana, Texas) only has the resources provided by its annual grant.
Commodity Distribution. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and
Emergency Assistance Act and provisions of Agriculture Department law (e.g.,
Section 32, noted above) give the Secretary of Agriculture the ability to acquire and
divert commodity food stocks in the case of emergencies/disasters.
Using these authorities, the Agriculture Department provided food to congregate
feeding sites (e.g., schools, emergency shelters) and additional food items in the form
of infant formula, baby food, and household-size food packages.
What Was the Scale of Federal Support?
The Agriculture Department reports that at least $585 million in food stamp
benefits was issued under disaster assistance rules for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
(including those for evacuees). Commodity donations (including infant formula)
totaled to 22 million pounds and were valued at more than $27 million.6 However,
no specific estimate for the cost of additional child nutrition assistance is available,
although the Department had to transfer $120 million from its food stamp budget
account to the child nutrition account because of unanticipated payments to child
5 It should be noted that Mississippi does not use vouchers to distribute WIC benefits. It
supplies WIC food packages through state-sponsored distribution centers. As a result, WIC
benefits in Mississippi have to be supplied by providing infant formula and other food items
from state warehouses and federal and out-of-state stocks.
6 $50 million worth of commodity assistance was authorized.
Detailed information as to the Agriculture Department’s response relating to
food assistance and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita can be found at the following
While the Agriculture Department made substantial changes in food assistance
program rules in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a number of important
issues were raised (but not acted on) in Congress.
!Affected states faced major new food stamp administrative costs.
Current law (no waiver allowed) requires that states pay roughly
was asked for.
!The waivers of food assistance program rules were time-limited —
typically for one to three months. However, time extensions were
be called for.
!Food stamp disaster rules differed by state and type of affected
household. Equity issues were raised.
!The Agriculture Department interpreted its authority to waive child
nutrition program rules very expansively. New disaster waiver
authority specific to child nutrition was supported.
!While the CSFP and TEFAP providers received additional food
commodities, extra assistance for distribution costs was thought
!Higher food and other costs incurred by affected households
prompted calls for added benefits and looser eligibility standards —
for example, a higher maximum food stamp benefit for affected
households and larger federal school lunch subsidies.
!Additional WIC program funding for affected states was advocated.
!Concerns were raised about longer-term problems — for example,
how to deal with duplicate benefits, issues related to fraudulent
receipt of benefits, and the effects of errors made in8
!The policy under which noncitizens not normally eligible for food
stamp benefits are eligible under disaster assistance rules was
7 An important related issue was how to allocate increased costs among the various
programs affected in which the federal government shares administrative costs — e.g., food
stamps, Medicaid, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
8 In this regard, it should be noted that some program requirements were “waived” by simply
not asking normally pertinent questions — e.g., those relating to citizen status — or
Legislation and Appropriations
Several bills dealing with food assistance were introduced in the wake of
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.9 But the Administration did not advance any legislative
or appropriations proposal dealing with food assistance. And in the end, Congress
took no substantial action as to hurricane-related food assistance efforts — other than
providing appropriations of $6 million for help with TEFAP distribution costs and
$4 million for CSFP expenses, and allowing the Agriculture Department to relax
rules governing how TEFAP support is allocated among states.
S. 1695 (the Hurricane Katrina Food Assistance Relief Act of 2005) contained10
the broadest set of proposals for food assistance programs. In general, this bill
would have put into place, by law, the major actions already taken by the Agriculture
Department in response to Hurricane Katrina (and Rita), extended their application
for up to one year, increased food stamp benefits for those affected and loosened food
stamp financial and non-financial (including citizenship-related) eligibility tests for
affected households (for up to one year), provided mandatory funding increases for
TEFAP, the CSFP, and the WIC program, and given legislative authority for child
nutrition program waivers already granted.
!The bill would have established a “disaster recovery period”
extending for 180 days after enactment and requires another 180-day
extension unless the President judged the extension unnecessary.
!Food stamps: For affected households during the disaster recovery
period, (1) work requirements would be waived, (2) expedited
service would be required, (3) maximum benefits would be
increased by 10%, (4) the federal government would pay 100% of
state administrative costs (as opposed to the normal 50%), (5)
monthly gross income eligibility limits would be raised to 150% of
the federal income poverty guidelines (as opposed to the normal
130%), (6) any asset to which a household has lost access would not
be counted for eligibility purposes, (7) any funds received by an
affected household for rebuilding or relocation would be excluded
as an asset, (8) affected households living with others would be
treated as separate from their co-residents, and (9) food stamp rules
barring eligibility to some noncitizens would be effectively waived.
The bill also included provisions limiting authority to take action
against households getting improper benefits, excused states for any
errors made in administering the program for affected households,
and provided $5 million for contracts with nonprofit organizations
to support food assistance and related needs of affected households.
9 The only major comprehensive proposal relating to food assistance from outside Congress
was put forward by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (September 9, 2005). See the
center’s website at [http://www.cbpp.org].
10 S. 1695 superceded an earlier version — S. 1643.
!Child nutrition programs: For affected households during the
disaster recovery period, the bill made clear that any condition
governing federal assistance may be waived.
!The WIC program: The bill mandated $200 million in additional
funding, to be apportioned without regard to normal formula
!TEFAP: The bill mandated $200 million in additional funding for
commodity and food distribution costs related to affected households
and required that at least $200 million of funds available under
Section 32 be used for helping affected persons.11
!The CSFP: The bill required $20 million in additional funding.
!More generous plans: The bill made clear that any administratively
approved disaster assistance plan that provides more generous
treatment for affected households supercedes its provisions.
H.R. 3809 (the Emergency Food and Farm Disaster Assistance Act of 2005)
contained provisions very similar to those in S. 1695, noted above. Title I of this
proposal differed in the following major ways:
!Food stamps: The federal share of administrative costs for affected
households would be 90%; and food stamp benefit increases could
be slightly smaller for many affected households.
!Other programs: The bill included no child nutrition, WIC, or
S. 1637 (Subtitle E of Title IV of the Katrina Emergency Relief Act of 2005)
was effectively the same as H.R. 3809, noted above, except that it included additional
funding for the WIC program (as proposed in S. 1695).
11 It is unclear to what extent the requirement that at least $200 million in Section 32 funding
be provided would actually increase federal support because the Secretary of Agriculture
has (and has used) existing authority to draw on Section 32 to provide food aid in disasters.