The Human Right to Food:
“The right to have regular, permanent and free access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.”
-United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food
Preventing Hunger: Why You Need a Lawyer (Even Though You Shouldn’t)
It may be basic and perhaps many of us who do not have to worry about going hungry take it for granted, but without food, it is hard for humans to do basic functions or to grow, focus or produce – let alone thrive.
Accessing nutritious, affordable and sufficient food was already a challenge for many Marylanders before the pandemic and today, as the nation continues to grapple with the pandemic, many more are struggling to meet this most basic need. In a system fraught with systemic barriers that often result in unlawful denials of applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or federal food assistance commonly known as food stamps), it’s clear now more than ever, that the system that administers the benefit program is deeply flawed and complicated to navigate alone, even more so for individuals with disabilities, people with limited English proficiency, people experiencing housing insecurity, and people who do not have access to internet and/or phone. People apply for food assistance because they are facing extraordinary circumstances that make them unable to feed themselves or their family. As such, the process of applying for food assistance should be as low-barrier and simple as possible.
The pandemic has only exacerbated food insecurity. From March to April 2020, there was a 400 percent jump in applicants in Maryland for SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps. By June 2020, a staggering 14 percent of the State’s population, nearly 845,000 people, were receiving SNAP benefits. While the numbers clearly demonstrate the importance of public benefits in the fight against hunger, people eligible for food aid across the country faced daunting challenges just to enroll in SNAP. Many individuals and families facing economic hardship experienced long application delays, incorrect application denials, and terminations of benefits that could have been avoided. There is often a gap between what should happen in accordance with the law spells out and what happens in practice. The law provides protections to those that have been improperly denied or terminated from benefits even though they meet the eligibility criteria.
Civil legal aid attorneys can ensure that individuals know their rights and leverage key legal protections based in federal law, state statutes, and administrative rules and regulations to advocate for clients who have been unlawfully denied crucial public benefits. Take for example the experiences of Jane and Patricia.
After surviving domestic violence abuse that ultimately caused her to lose her job and home, Jane* and her children were living in an emergency homeless shelter in Baltimore City in the midst of the pandemic. Jane applied for SNAP benefits in the fall of 2020. On her application, Jane disclosed that she was experiencing homelessness and had been unemployed for several months. In response, Maryland’s Department of Human Services (DHS) asked Jane to have her prior employer complete a verification form confirming that she was no longer employed there. Jane contacted her prior employer and was informed that they could not complete the form because the business was under new leadership and everyone Jane had worked with, including her prior supervisor, were no longer employees there. When Jane explained her circumstance to DHS, no one offered her assistance in getting the form complete or pointed out that there were other ways the Department could have obtained the information requested on its own. A couple of months later, Jane’s application was denied.
Despite her frustration and all the responsibilities she carried in taking care of her family, Jane filed an appeal with the Homeless Persons Representation Project (HPRP) as counsel. At the appeal hearing, Jane testified before an administrative law judge and explained that she had done everything she could to try and have the verification form completed. The Department agreed that Jane was eligible for SNAP benefits, but denied her application because of the incomplete verification form. Jane argued that the verification form was not a document the Department needed, and that even if it was, the Department had a legal obligation to assist her in obtaining the verification. The judge ruled in Jane’s favor and ordered that the Department issue back benefits, which totaled approximately $8000.
Patricia*, a 73 year old Prince George’s County resident, applied for SNAP benefits in early 2021 and was approved two months later. Notably, federal law requires that an applicant is provided with an ‘opportunity to participate’ in the SNAP program as soon as possible but no later than 7 days from when the application was filed for expedited applications and 30 days for non-expedited. Within those timeframes, DHS is required to provide eligible applicants with an active Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card with the SNAP benefits loaded to it. Federal law is very clear about these time frames because if someone without financial means to purchase food qualifies for benefits, they can use their card as soon as possible to purchase food. Despite receiving a letter that she was eligible to receive benefits, several additional weeks went by and Patricia never received her EBT card by mail.
In addition to being impacted by the pandemic, Patricia also had limited mobility that made it hard for her to leave her home without assistance. Nonetheless, Patricia sought the help of an attorney from HPRP and filed an appeal with the Office of Administrative Hearings. She argued that the Department had failed to provide her with a timely opportunity to participate in the SNAP program, in violation of federal and state SNAP regulations, because the Department did not provide her with access to an EBT card within 30 days of filing her SNAP application. With the law clearly on her side, the Department agreed and provided her with an EBT card before the scheduled hearing. There was over $1,000 on her card, including the benefits going back months to when she applied.
Over the course of the pandemic, HPRP heard from many other individuals with experiences echoing those of Jane and Patricia – who face numerous obstacles to receiving their food aid. In fact, the demand for legal help reached such heights that HPRP started a new SNAP hotline to be able to meet the demand.
Unfortunately, in addition to the systemic obstacles they face, individuals seeking public assistance benefits also have to swim through a sea of fear, shame and stigma based in xenophobic and race and ethnicity-based stereotypes that are untrue and harmful. As the A2J Commission, HPRP and so many other advocates across the country point out, people who are enduring hunger should not have to overcome stigma, racism and systemic challenges to access basic food aid. The right to available, accessible and adequate food necessary to live a healthy life, and the means to access food, is a basic human right, recognized by the United Nations and the American Bar Association.
As food insecurity is higher than ever in Maryland, there are critical steps that state actors, like Governor Hogan and DHS, can take to make the administration of benefits more equitable and remove institutional barriers to food aid benefits and ensure Marylanders do not experience food insecurity. A2J, in partnership with the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, released a COVID-19 Task Force Report in January 2021 outlining various reforms and recommendations. For more information on A2JC’s recommendations addressing food insecurity, access to counsel and the civil justice system in general, see the A2J COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force Report.
* Jane and Patricia’s names have been changed to respect their privacy.