New Orleans City Hall (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The city of New Orleans is preparing to end its COVID-19 Meal Assistance Program, which has served more than 10,000 people since it began last summer. 

The program, funded through a cost-sharing agreement between FEMA and the city government, delivers meals from local restaurants to people over 65, under 18, have high-risk health conditions, or who are homeless. So far, it’s provided more than 3 million individual meals.

“Lots of things are coming to an end as what they call the ‘public health crisis’ is coming to an end,” said Elisa Muñoz, director of the New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee, a local advocacy group. “But the effects of poverty and hunger still remain.”

The program, which began in July, was originally slated to operate for only one month. But as COVID-19 cases failed to significantly decline through the summer, fall and winter, FEMA has continued to reimburse 75 percent of the program’s costs on a month-to-month basis. 

Over the past several months, vaccine eligibility has expanded to include everyone over the age of 12, and cases and hospitalizations have dropped, leading the city to consider ending its monthly funding requests to the federal government. 

The city currently plans to end the program at the end of June, according to information released after this story was originally published. But last week, the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness indicated — mistakenly, according to an official who spoke to The Lens — that the end of the program would come at the end of this month. 

In a Friday afternoon email sent to a group of nonprofits, most New Orleans City Council members, the city’s health director and the Louisiana state health officer, NOHSEP said that the program would be ending May 30.

The email said the city would not be seeking a June extension. An attached sample letter, intended to be sent to meal recipients, said that FEMA funding had expired. Asked to explain the difference in the language, Laura Mellem, a spokesperson for NOHSEP, said, “Because the initially obligated funds have been expended, the request will include a request for a new funding obligation from FEMA for the month of June. She did not elaborate further. 

“[The email] was actually premature information,” Mellem said.

However, according to Mellem, “the program will likely be coming to an end soon.”

On Tuesday, NOLA Ready sent a followup email explaining that it was seeking an extension “in order to provide adequate time to transition recipients to other resources.”

The city hasn’t yet submitted a formal request to FEMA to extend the program for the month of June, though it’s working on one, Mellem said. Still, with the month-to-month funding scheme, the city is never sure its requests will be honored until FEMA responds. Mellem said her office doesn’t expect to know whether the program has been extended until the first week of June.

That timeline is consistent with the renewal process throughout the pandemic. FEMA generally informed the city whether it would extend the program a few days after the first of the month.

If the program isn’t funded, it will conclude the first week of June.

Mellem said that it was too soon to know if the city would ask FEMA for an extension through July. (Shortly after this article was first published, the city sent out a press release about the program winding down. It linked to a web page that says the June extension request will be the final one.)

“It’s really up to FEMA,” Mellem said. Although the meal program has likely fed people who are food insecure, it “has really been about the COVID risk, and keeping people who are vulnerable to COVID exposure safe.”

But as the situation has improved in the city due to vaccine availability and falling case counts, the “climate” may have changed for FEMA.

The Lens reached out to FEMA for more information on its decision-making process but did not receive a response by publication.

The program is now serving about 4,000 people, down from a high of 12,000 in the fall. “It has dwindled along with the pattern of people going back to work,” Mellem said.

Still, many of the people remaining may need continuing aid. New Orleans’ unemployment rate in March 2021 was double that in March 2020.

“This program specifically helped a lot of people who fell through the cracks,” said Jay Vise, director of communications and marketing for Second Harvest Food Bank. “The city was able to get out into people’s homes.”

Earlier this year, Muñoz warned that vulnerable people might be left with a gap in meal aid when the program closed. FPAC has its own program to help enroll seniors in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, informally known as food stamps. 

Muñoz said that it has seen an uptick in new clients as smaller meal assistance programs have ended. New client calls are up to four to six a day, which creates a significant amount of work for FPAC’s single SNAP coordinator.

“When a senior calls, it’s the beginning of a process that can take eight hours,” Muñoz said.

It can take four to six weeks after an initial application for someone to begin receiving SNAP benefits. Muñoz said that she’s hoping the city will provide contact information for current meal recipients so that groups like FPAC, the Second Harvest Food Bank, or other support systems can reach out proactively.

Mellem said that the meal boxes going out this week will include information in Spanish, English, and Vietnamese about how to reach other food assistance programs. Clients will also be able to call 211 to begin the SNAP enrollment process.

She also said that the city hopes to use the same FEMA program for future hurricane response.

Vise confirmed that Second Harvest was in communication with the city about how to provide resources “if and when FEMA funding of this program does end.”

Other programs are also gearing up to provide food aid. The Broadmoor Improvement Association has had a SNAP enrollment program for years as part of its food pantry, says Bethanie Mangigian, the Association’s wellness director. But over the next weeks, it’s hoping to train other nonprofits to sign people up for SNAP, and “make sure they are ready to absorb some of the need that is about to emerge.”

“The infrastructure hasn’t needed to be there because the FEMA program was alleviating a lot of that need,” Mangigian said. “But I think we are going to see a lot of folks with a gap coming off that program. So with that gap, we need to be ready to offer resources and navigation.”

For more information on meal assistance programs, call 2-1-1. To see if you may be eligible for SNAP benefits, check FPAC’s Snap Calculator. Or call FPAC at (504) 345-8437. 

This article has been updated to include information — released by the city of New Orleans after the article’s original publication — that the June funding extension request to FEMA will be the last.