Minnesota families struggling to put food on the table during the coronavirus pandemic will get emergency relief under an expansion of the federal food stamp program.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) announced that 250,000 Minnesotans who rely on monthly food stamp benefits to feed themselves and their families will receive expanded payments under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. The amount of relief will vary by household, with benefits increasing by an average of about $150 a month per recipient.

The emergency relief will total about $55 million, and comes as state officials and hunger relief organizations struggle to prevent a hunger crisis. Demand at many of the 350 food shelves in Minnesota is double or triple normal levels, just as many food shelves are struggling with a shortage of volunteers. Public health experts have warned that rising levels of hunger and malnutrition can increase the risks of infection.

Second Harvest Heartland, the state’s largest food bank, which helps people apply for benefits through its SNAP outreach program, said March was its biggest month on record for food stamp referrals, with applications at double their normal levels. To help those too frail or sick to visit a food shelf, the nonprofit has distributed nearly 40,000 emergency food kits, with eight meals each, since the first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in Minnesota in early March.

“Emergency SNAP supplements will make a real difference to families who need help now,” Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said in a statement. “Ensuring that Minnesotans with low incomes have the resources they need to put food on the table is critically important during this pandemic.”

Families who qualify for the expanded SNAP benefits will begin receiving them on April 28, and they will continue throughout May on a staggered basis. The funds will be added automatically to the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards used to purchase food at stores. People who qualify do not have to take any action, DHS officials said.

Under the program, a family of four that receives $497 per month would get an emergency supplement of $149, bringing them to the maximum monthly benefit of $646 for the family. Households that already receive the maximum amount of SNAP benefits will not receive the higher payments.

Nearly 380,000 low-income Minnesotans are enrolled in the food stamp program.

 

Twitter: @chrisserres