Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. (AP Photo / Matt Rourke)

State officials are reporting a steady rise in need for food aid, while lawmakers and activists sound alarms on a soon-to-expire food program for children.

Elected officials in Washington and Harrisburg are seeking to move beyond the worst phase of the coronavirus pandemic, with many pandemic-era programs set to be scaled back or eliminated.

But the demand remains: As of this month, more than 41 million people nationwide are subscribed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – commonly called SNAP or food stamps – according to the US Department of Agriculture. That’s an increase of more than 5 million people from the pre-pandemic era.

The demand continues to rise at the state level, as well. As of last month, 1.8 million Pennsylvanians were enrolled in the federally funded program, a nearly 9-percent hike from before the pandemic, WESA reporter Kate Giammarise reported this week, citing the state Department of Human Services.

That demand has been met with a fresh round of funding from Washington. A massive federal spending bill President Joe Biden signed this week included $ 140 billion in nutritional funding, a figure at least one skeptical GOP lawmaker labeled a “23 percent increase in funding for the SNAP welfare program.”

While funding for the program is set to continue, other food relief could soon dry up at a time when rising food prices and supply disruptions threaten to put more Americans at risk.

For much of the pandemic, schools got additional federal money that allowed them to provide free or steeply discounted meals, including after classes or in summer. The so-called child nutrition waivers that made those policies possible are slated to expire by July, meaning school meal programs could face precipitous cuts.

“These waivers have been critical in supporting nutrition operations so that children have access to school, afterschool, and summer meals throughout the pandemic,” leaders of the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center said last week, “And they are still needed to help schools and families recover from and respond to the economic, health and educational fallout.”

An overwhelming majority of school nutrition departments nationwide reported rising costs, supply chain problems and staffing problems in the past year, the group said, citing federal surveys.

The threatened cuts have prompted state lawmakers to push back, with a group in Harrisburg calling for renewed federal school-meal funding.

This week, state Rep. Austin Davis, D-Allegheny, proposed a resolution urging the federal government to extend the school waivers another year. The resolution has drawn several cosponsors, including one Republican.

“This program has been universally popular with families, and if you ask a parent of a school-age child, they’ll probably tell you it was one of the best things to come out of the last two years,” Davis said in a written statement.

Rep calls for surprise jail reviews

A state lawmaker wants the state to carry out surprise inspections of county jails – a shift from the current practice of pre-announced inspections.

The state Department of Corrections is responsible for inspecting county jails, with each jail mandated for an inspection every one to two years. But as Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga, noted this week, those inspections are announced in advance.

“While there may certainly be a benefit to having announced inspections, I believe periodic unannounced inspections are also necessary in order to ensure that facilities have a strong incentive to maintain conditions between announced inspections,” Owlet said in a memo to House colleagues. “This is certainly not a new concept; even our dairy farmers are subject to regular, unannounced inspections – resulting in higher quality operations overall. “

Conditions in Pennsylvania’s county jails have drawn political attention, and in some cases legal changes. Last year, voters in Allegheny County overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative that set limits and monitoring rules on their jail’s use of solitary confinement.

Deer disease funding slowly grows

Amid the massive spending on arms for Ukraine and the debate over pandemic relief and food aid, it would be easy to miss $ 10 million in federal grants to help states combat chronic wasting disease.

Still, that $ 10 million marks a significant increase in federal help to fight the disease, which can decimate deer herds and put strain on hunting communities.

Since its first appearance among Pennsylvania’s wild deer in 2012, the fatal disease has spread across the state’s central counties, spurring game officials to set special rules governing hunting and processing. The brain disease is not believed to affect humans, but scientists continue to study it.

In recent months, at least three new states have reported their first chronic wasting disease cases, according to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. And while funding to combat its spread has increased, many grant requests have gone unfilled as demand outstrips supply.

Other legislation that would ramp up funding has yet to pass. In December, a bill to pump $ 70 million a year into fighting the disease – introduced by Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-15th District, and Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wisc. – easily passed the House, with several Pennsylvania cosponsors. But it has yet to get a hearing in the Senate.

Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers. He can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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