More Louisianans Than Ever Used Food Assistance Programs in 2021
BATON ROUGE (The Center Square) – Officials with the Louisiana departments of Children & Family Services and Health provided insight on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic for lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee.
Marketa Garner Walters, secretary of the Department of Children & Family Services (DCFS), explained how the coronavirus drove up dependency on federal food programs and other services for families, resulting in the highest number of participants in the state’s history.
“We issued more than $3.2 billion … in food assistance (last year). That’s $1 billion more than the year before, the first year of the pandemic,” Walters said Wednesday during a committee meeting. “Three-quarters of a million children in this state received pandemic food on the pandemic EBT card.
“We have a horrible number. We have a million Louisianans on the food stamp program right now,” Walters said. “We have never had that kind of threshold of people in this state needing food supplemental health.”
Walters said the economic effect of federal money flowing into the state’s more than 4,000 retailers that accept the EBT cards is now at $5 billion.
The pandemic also exacerbated existing issues with child welfare, Walters said. Child abuse reports declined during the pandemic but since have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. Caseloads for child care workers are high, and turnover at the department is about 50% for low-level workers, which combined with low pay poses a massive challenge for the department, Walters said.
“The great resignation did not pass over DCFS,” she said. “We have lost an awful lot of staff. The high caseloads are crippling in child welfare and in food stamps.”
Isolation from the pandemic also meant “domestic violence cases have skyrocketed,” Walters said.
The pandemic-related issues were compounded by emergency weather events and 400 vacancies in the department; roughly double the typical vacancy rate.
“We issued $80 million in disaster food stamps last year. We had more than 223 staff hours that covered five different events. We sheltered more than 3,500 people in 88 shelters … after Hurricane Ida,” Walters said.
Several lawmakers also questioned officials with the Department of Health on the response during the pandemic and how the department is analyzing outcomes to improve for the future.
Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City, referenced the pandemic’s effect on children and families and pressed officials on whether “the measures we took made sense compared to the outcomes we got.”
“Do you think it was a good risk, a good tradeoff?” Crews said.
State Health Officer Joseph Kanter said “the course of the state of Louisiana saved lives.”
Kanter said Louisiana was hit hard early in the pandemic but said analyzing how decisions affected the course of the disease in Louisiana will take years.
Crews also questioned why health officials promoted vaccines and testing over other known ways to combat COVID-19, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, exercise and other measures.
“I felt like those weren’t getting promoted at all,” he said.
Kanter defended the department’s pandemic response, and bristled at the notion that officials could have done more to pursue all possible ways to combat the coronavirus.
“I think you oversimplified the strategy a little bit. Vaccines are an important part of the mitigation strategy, as are nonpharmaceutical interventions … as are therapeutics which are coming in more supply now. Those are multifactorial,” Kanter said. “But to insinuate things that have not been proven, like vitamin E, somehow would have saved lives is a gross misrepresentation.”
“There were no question lives lost in this pandemic, almost 17,000, but the actions taken by this state, particularly by members of the Louisiana Department of Health, without question kept that number from going higher than it would have been otherwise,” Kanter said.