The U.S. Capitol. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers want to prioritize food insecurity in the next round of COVID-19 relief legislation.

More than 100 lawmakers sent a letter Tuesday, including five Virginia representatives, asking Democratic and Republican leaders of the U.S. House and Senate to boost the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit by 15 percent — a request Republicans rejected in the $2 trillion coronavirus response packaged signed into law last month.

“SNAP is one of our country’s most vital social safety nets, and it will continue to play a critical role in reducing hunger, malnutrition and poverty throughout the COVID-19 health crisis,” the House lawmakers wrote. Democrats were joined on the letter by one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.

During the 2009 recession, Congress boosted the maximum benefit to $1.74 per person per meal, and Congress “must make a similar investment” now, they wrote.

 More than 863,000 Virginians, (about one in 10 residents)  struggle with hunger, according to Feeding America, a national hunger-relief organization.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has voiced support for the effort, telling reporters last week that Democrats “did not get all that we wanted” for food and nutrition programs. “We have more needs, so we need more resources to feed the hungry.”

She called the absence of increased SNAP benefits in the last coronavirus package a “disappointment” at a news conference last month. “We were asking for a 15 percent increase in food stamps at this very fragile time for many families, [but] they wouldn’t do that in this bill.”

On Wednesday, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued a joint statement laying out their priorities for an “interim emergency coronavirus relief” package. They called for “strong additional support for families with a 15 percent increase to the maximum SNAP benefit to help put food on the table.”

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not respond to requests for comment.

Pelosi and Schumer also called for $250 billion in assistance to small businesses, $100 billion for health care facilities and $150 billion for state and local governments to manage the crisis.

The Democrats’ requests came after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday asked Congress to swiftly spend an extra $250 billion to replenish the new $349 billion small-business coronavirus program that is being overwhelmed, the Washington Post reported.

Pelosi and Schumer said they wanted $125 billion of the small business cash “to be channeled through community-based financial institutions that serve farmers, family, women, minority and veteran-owned small businesses and nonprofits.” They also called for “improvements to ensure all eligible small businesses can access this critical funding and are not turned away by banks.”

McConnell said Tuesday that he hopes the Senate will approve additional funding for small business relief later this week. The Senate could do so in a way that doesn’t require most members to return to Washington.

A previous COVID-19 response bill, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, includes billions of dollars for nutritional assistance for children and families and authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ease some restrictions, according to the agency.

“USDA is committed to maximizing our services and flexibilities to ensure children and others who need food can get it during this Coronavirus epidemic,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “This is a challenging time for many Americans.”

The USDA, the agency noted, has temporarily eased some rules, such as requirements that meals be served in group settings and at certain times of day; that children appear with parents to receive benefits; and that local operators meet certain “meal pattern” rules.

A “pandemic-SNAP” program allows families whose children would have received free or reduced-price meals to qualify for SNAP, according to Rep. David Price (D-N.C.)

Soaring unemployment 

In 2019, SNAP served 38 million Americans, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) — a number likely to rise in the wake of soaring unemployment. Of those, 1.3 million live in North Carolina — about 12 percent of the state’s population.

SNAP benefits are modest — averaging about $1.40 per person per meal, the government’s estimate of the amount needed for a sparse but nutritionally adequate diet. Studies show that many households lack money to buy food by the end of the month, according to CBPP.

In addition to increasing SNAP funding by 15 percent, House Democrats also want to increase the monthly minimum SNAP benefit from $16 to $30 and stop the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken food benefits.

In December, the Trump administration finalized a rule that would tighten food stamp eligibility requirements by limiting states’ ability to grant waivers that extend benefits in areas with high unemployment. The administration estimates that about 688,000 people nationwide will lose access to nutrition benefits under the new regulation.

The rule was set to take effect on April 1 but was blocked by a federal judge, NPR reported.

Two other pending rules would also dramatically reduce the number of people receiving food stamp benefits, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute.

“All three rules, at the very least, should be stayed until the economy shows significant improvement,” the U.S. House lawmakers wrote Tuesday in their letter.