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USDA getting food assistance to hurricane victims

The Agriculture Department is working with states and food banks to provide both food and food stamps to people in the 13 states affected by Hurricane Sandy, USDA said this week.

Under current law, supplemental nutrition assistance benefits — better known as SNAP or food stamps — can be made available to victims of natural disasters, but when electrical power is out and grocery stores are closed, direct food assistance usually comes first.

In New York, USDA is working with the state, the Food Bank for New York City, and partner agencies to distribute approximately 1.1 million pounds of USDA foods through nearly 1,000 designated emergency feeding outlets to affected households in New York City, Long Island, and Westchester and Rockland counties.

In New Jersey, USDA worked late last week with the state government and the Community Food Bank of New Jersey to coordinate the delivery of 39,000 pounds of USDA foods to support feeding efforts with the Red Cross and Salvation Army. The food bank will combine USDA foods with existing food stocks to produce 15,000 meals per day for five to seven days to be distributed in cooperation with the Red Cross and Salvation Army at shelters.

In addition to the direct food assistance, USDA has also reminded retailers accustomed to handling electronic benefit transfer cards of how to process such transactions during power outages.

In certain areas in New York, USDA has granted a waiver to allow SNAP recipients to purchase hot foods using SNAP benefits. Under normal circumstances, SNAP benefits cannot be used to purchase hot, ready-to-eat foods. USDA has granted this waiver to accommodate individuals that have lost homes, are affected by power outages, or are otherwise unable to prepare food due to damage caused by the storm.

USDA has approved requests from the states of Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia and to issue automatic, mass replacements of benefits to SNAP households in certain areas affected by the storm. USDA has also approved requests from Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia to extend the time SNAP recipients have to report loss of food purchased using SNAP benefits, and to request replacement benefits.

USDA and the Education Department have also reminded states and schools that they may use stocks of USDA foods purchased for the National School Lunch Program to help prepare meals at schools, shelters or other feeding sites to help feed local residents.

USDA has also provided guidance to the directors of child nutrition programs in all states to remind them that schools and other community-based organizations may provide meals to children in areas affected by disasters, when schools are closed or students are displaced due to natural disasters.