BOSTON — The economic toll of the coronavirus in Massachusetts has caused a surge in requests for food stamps and other public assistance programs.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been put out of work by government shutdowns intended to slow the spread of the virus, and that has many families struggling to put food on the table.
Applications in Massachusetts for food assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program jumped to 53,622 in March and 61,103 in April. That's compared to 18,688 applicants in February, according to the state.
As of April, at least 508,234 Massachusetts households were receiving food stamps, according to the Department of Transitional Assistance.
The state also has seen a spike in requests for the primary cash assistance program, Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
In April, there were 79,270 people receiving those benefits compared to 57,862 in April 2019, according to the state.
Advocacy groups say demand for food assistance is soaring amid the economic turmoil created by the coronavirus.
"The demand has been extraordinary," said Naomi Meyer, a senior attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services, which counsels low-income families. "We've seen increased demand not just from families already getting assistance but a lot of new people. There's a lot of folks struggling."
Those getting SNAP benefits must fall within certain income guidelines. If qualified, a family of four can get up to $646 a month, though the average family only receives about $208 a month.
Massachusetts has been one of the hardest-hit states in the global pandemic, with 87,925 COVID-19 infections and 5,938 deaths as of Tuesday.
Nearly a million workers across a swath of industries — more than a quarter of the state's workforce — are jobless.
State leaders have responded to demand for food assistance by making it easier for people to receive benefits and pumping more money into food programs.
Earlier this week, the Baker administration announced $65 million to help overburdened food banks and provide meals directly to needy families.
"While COVID-19 has had a statewide impact, some of our communities and residents who have historically experienced food insecurity have been even more disproportionately impacted," Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters at a briefing Sunday when he announced the additional funding.
The state has also set up more than 500 distribution sites to provide boxed lunches for students who qualify for free or subsidized meals.
The federal government has also taken steps to make it easier to receive food stamps by loosening the verification requirements for new applicants. Likewise, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, has increased SNAP benefits by 40% through the end of May as part of the pandemic response.
But advocates say the pressure on the food assistance programs is likely to increase in coming months, and more funding will be needed.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.