A bipartisan group of lawmakers and José Andrés want to empower FEMA to meet America’s growing hunger crisis

The novel coronavirus pandemic has created a kind of moral crisis on the front lines where the need expands almost daily: Who qualifies for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance during a catastrophe not caused by a flood, earthquake, tornado or some other natural disaster?

In typical disasters, the people who require help are clear: They’ve lost homes and, along with them, their ability to feed themselves and their families. Whether in New Orleans after Katrina or in California after the wildfires, no one had a problem identifying those in need. The current pandemic is different: There are now more than 33 million unemployed Americans, many who don’t have a clear idea when they may work again. The line between government welfare and emergency assistance has never been fuzzier.

Which is one reason a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been working with chef and humanitarian José Andrés and his nonprofit organization, World Central Kitchen, to introduce the FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries Act, a bill that will expand the range of people eligible for FEMA assistance. It will allow local and state governments to partner with restaurants and nonprofit groups to feed all those in need during covid-19, with the federal agency picking up the costs of the programs. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) introduced the bill this week in the House, and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced it in the Senate.

The Feed Act is the latest element in a plan that Andrés has been promoting since the pandemic began to disrupt life in America in March. The celebrated chef has compared his plan to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, which was created 85 years ago as a way to put Americans back to work and jump-start the economy during the Great Depression. Likewise, the Feed Act will put some restaurants, farmers, distributors and other suppliers back to work in the $900 billion U.S. hospitality industry, while feeding the country’s most vulnerable, Mook said.

“It’s not just a Band-Aid solution,” he added. “It’s a solution that can hopefully start to get the wheels churning again, to get the engine of our economy and our society rolling again.”

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