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

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has renewed New Orleans’ COVID-19 meal assistance program for this month, a City Hall spokesperson told the Lens. The last meals will be delivered on June 29th. It does not appear that the program will be extended again after June.

The announcement gives a measure of security to local food pantries and other meal providers, which were preparing to take on a wave of new clients had the program not been renewed. 

“I think we can all breathe a big sigh of relief knowing that this program can continue,” said Erica Chomsky-Adelson, director of Culture Aid NOLA, which currently provides low-barrier, direct food assistance to hundreds of people. “It’s meant the difference between life or death for a lot of residents and for a lot of restaurants. … Having a couple extra weeks to plan is a godsend. I’m very proud of city leadership for advocating for New Orleanians.”

The meal assistance program began in July 2020, and provides 14 meals a week prepared by local restaurants to its clients. FEMA covers 75 percent of the costs via reimbursement. It was intended to both provide business to local restaurants and deliver meals to those facing food insecurity because of the pandemic: people over 65 or with high risk health conditions, people who are unhoused, children, and people in quarantine.

Though the program was initially slated to run for a single month, FEMA has repeatedly renewed its support on a month-by-month basis. In previous months, FEMA has issued its renewals a few days after the program technically expired. FEMA support most recently expired at the end of May, and since then, the city has temporarily extended the program while waiting for a FEMA decision.

The program has provided more than 3 million meals. At its peak during the winter, it served more than 11,000 people. Over the spring, however, the number of people enrolled has steadily declined to about 4,000, which officials from the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness — the city agency administering the program — attribute in part to improving economic conditions.

Emails obtained by the Lens through a public records request suggest that some NOHSEP officials were weighing whether to seek even a June extension, but they ultimately decided to apply for an additional month. In mid-May, the city asked FEMA for a June extension to the program. Shortly afterwards, it wrote on a program website that it would not seek any future extensions.

For months, the city’s nonprofit partners have warned that many people on the program may need continuing aid after it concludes. An analysis by consulting firm UrbanFootprint found that in March 2021, 33,000 households in New Orleans were food insecure, up 29 percent since the start of the pandemic.

“The seniors we currently serve are worried about when these meals stop,” Elisa Muñoz, director of the nonprofit New Orleans Food Policy Advisory Committee, told the Lens earlier this week. “It is hard to get through days not knowing if the 2 meals a day you count on will be delivered tomorrow.”

Another federal food assistance program, called the Farmers to Families Food Box, concluded in May, putting additional strain on local food banks.

The city included a flier on alternative food assistance programs in its deliveries two weeks ago. It has also rolled out a partnership with the Louisiana 2-1-1 helpline, which can help people begin the enrollment process for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, informally known as food stamps. However, NOHSEP officials have told nonprofit partners who are interested in direct outreach that it cannot provide a list of meal recipients.

The Food Policy Advisory Committee is also conducting SNAP enrollment for those over 60, and beginning in July, the Broadmoor Improvement Association will start holding “SNAP office hours” at the Rosa Keller Library to offer in-person assistance.