Fighting Texas Hunger with Policy during the COVID-19 Crisis

/, Food Assistance Programs, Food Security/Fighting Texas Hunger with Policy during the COVID-19 Crisis
CPPP - Covid-19 Texas Policy Solutions - Food

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and businesses, federal nutrition programs were key to putting healthy food on the table for millions of Texas households. Before this crisis even started:

  • Texas students ate nearly 2 million breakfasts and 3.4 million lunches at school each day;
  • The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) made sure that almost 700,000 moms, infants and toddlers in Texas had access to nutrition foods;
  • Texas daycare homes and centers fed 770,000 toddlers nutritious meals each day through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)
  • 3.5 million Texans relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”) to feed their families.

Now stopping the virus requires keeping children out of schools and daycares and keeping millions of Texans home from their jobs, with over 2 million Texans applying for unemployment relief. This means that all these nutrition programs have to adapt to meet the record levels of need and to prevent Texas from going hungry. Thankfully, officials at the local, state, and federal level have moved quickly to enact important changes, but leaders will need to do even more to ensure Texans can feed their families during this crisis.

SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly Food Stamps, is the most important federal program for preventing hunger by helping people and families afford food when they go through tough economic times. SNAP benefits in Texas flow through a Lone Star electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card each month, and the amount that each person receives is based on their income and size of household. People can only use their benefits on food items at authorized supermarkets, farmer’s markets, convenience and dollar stores.

New COVID-19 Changes as of April 2, 2020:

  • The United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) waived the previously required SNAP eligibility interview at both the initial application and at recertification. (National policy)
  • Suspension of Texas’ SNAP Employment & Training (SNAP E&T) requirements for parents, so they will be able to stay on SNAP even if they are unemployed. (Federally approved policy)
  • Congress suspended SNAP Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWD) time limits so adults without dependents can receive SNAP benefits without jumping through job-seeking hoops. (National policy)
  • A new policy will automatically extend enrollment for all SNAP households due to recertify in March, April and May for six months. (Federally approved policy)
  • Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) will allow households to self-report their income level if the normal verification methods like paystubs or contacting employers are unavailable. (State policy)

UPDATE: New COVID-19 Changes as of May 15, 2020:

  • For April and May, HHSC provided all SNAP households the maximum benefit amount for their household size as an emergency allotment authorized by Congress. (Federally approved policy)
  • Children who get free or reduced-price school meals will get $285 on an EBT card to use at the grocery store to replace the meals they would have received if schools were open through the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program authorized by Congress. (Federally approved policy)
  • The USDA approved Texas’ request to allow SNAP households to purchase groceries online from approved retailers.  (Federally approved policy)
  • Congressionally authorized stimulus payments from the IRS will not count as income when determining SNAP eligibility and do not have to be reported. (National policy)
  • All unemployment compensation, including federal pandemic unemployment funds, will count as income when determining SNAP eligibility. (National policy)

UPDATE: Changes CPPP Still Recommends:

  • Texas lawmakers should suspend “asset” limits so the newly unemployed are not denied SNAP because of the value of their cars. Right now, owning a car valued at more than $15,000 can disqualify someone for SNAP. (State policy change required)
  • Texas should request that the federal government provide emergency benefits to all SNAP households for June and July — as authorized by Congress — giving all families the maximum benefit for their household size. (State must request a waiver)
  • Texas retailers should move quickly to update their systems and gain USDA approval to accept online SNAP purchases. (Retailers must apply for approval)
  • Texas officials should expand the capacity of non-profits with trained assistors to conduct remote application assistance for SNAP and other programs, particularly for clients who lack smartphones or internet access, in order to comply with social distancing and ease the state agency workload. (State policy change required)
  • Texas officials should request that USDA extend all of their current time-limited waivers as the need to socially distance and record levels of unemployment and hunger will continue for months to come. (State must request extension of waivers)
  • Texas lawmakers should urge Congress and the White House to increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent for all households to better reflect the cost of an adequate diet. (Federal legislation required)
  • Texans should urge Congress and the White House to extend the Pandemic EBT program and add preschoolers to replace the value of meals kids will miss with schools, daycares and summer feeding programs closed. (Federal legislation required)

School Meals

For millions of children in Texas, the most reliable meals they get are at school. Through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP), and Afterschool Meals, students qualify for free or reduced-price meals if they are from a low-income family. Students also qualify if they attend a school or district with a high percentage of low-income students where all students eat for free. Districts also offer Summer Meal programs in high-poverty areas when schools are closed.

New COVID-19 Changes as of April 2, 2020: 

  • The USDA allowed schools that are approved to run summer meal programs to waive the requirement that children eat together on-site, and can instead use the programs to deliver meals or have families pick up meals if closed. (National policy)
  • The USDA allowed parents and guardians to pick up multiple days of meals without their children being present, to make it easier to comply with social distancing rules. (National policy)
  • The USDA allowed schools to adjust the normal nutrition requirements if certain foods are not available. (National policy)
  • The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) waived the requirement that only high-poverty area schools can offer meal pick up or delivery programs, so more schools—those with lower overall poverty rates but that still include kids who need free meals—can also provide free pick-up or deliver meals. (Federally approved policy)
  • The USDA extended the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) application deadline to allow more high-poverty schools to apply to offer free meals to all students year-round. (National policy)

UPDATE: New COVID-19 Changes as of May 15, 2020:

  • Children who get free or reduced-price school meals will get $285 on an EBT card to use at the grocery store to replace the meals they would have received if schools were open through the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program authorized by Congress. (Federally approved policy)
  • The USDA allowed schools to provide free meals for kids on weekends and holidays. (National policy)

UPDATE: Changes CPPP Still Recommends:

  • Texas schools should continue to serve meals even after the regular school year endsto as many children as possible using the existing waivers as summer classes and programs will be canceled. (School districts must determine)
  • Texas officials should request that USDA extend all of their current time-limited waivers as the need to socially distance and record levels of unemployment and hunger will continue for months to come. (State must request extension of waivers)
  • Texans should urge Congress and the White House to extend the Pandemic EBT program and add preschoolers to replace the value of meals kids will miss with schools, daycares and summer feeding programs closed. (Federal legislation required)

WIC

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides low-income pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and children with nutritious foods, nutrition education, and improved access to health care in order to prevent nutrition-related health problems in pregnancy, infancy, and early childhood.

New COVID-19 Changes as of April 2, 2020:

  • As many WIC clinics are closed, Texas WIC has made it so that families do not have to physically go to a WIC clinic to enroll or reenroll and can delay any required health screenings. (Federally approved policy)
  • Texas WIC has made it so that if the supermarket is out of stock, then families can buy substitutes for the usual WIC-approved brands of milk, eggs and bread. (Federally approved policy)
  • Texas WIC now allows families who need a substitute food such as infant formula due to allergies the ability to request a change without showing a doctor’s report first. (Federally approved policy)
  • Texas will now issue WIC benefits remotely so families do not have to go to a WIC clinic to pick up WIC EBT cards or have them reloaded. (Federally approved policy)
  • The enrollment and re-enrollment process has been streamlined to speed up the issuing of benefits. (Federally approved policy)

UPDATE: New COVID-19 Changes as of May 15, 2020:

  • The USDA  now allows Texas WIC to issue up to four months of benefits to a family’s WIC EBT card at a time to reduce the need to contact WIC staff. (Federally approved policy)
  • Texas WIC has made it so that if the supermarket is out of stock, then families can buy substitutes for the usual WIC-approved packages of tortillas. (Federally approved policy)

Changes CPPP Still Recommends:

  • Texas officials should request that USDA extend all of their current time-limited waivers as the need to socially distance and record levels of unemployment and hunger will continue for months to come. (State must request extension of waivers)
  • Texas should request a waiver to allow families to rollover benefits to the following month to limit the number of shopping trips families need to make. (State must request a waiver)
  • The USDA should approve Texas WIC’s waiver request to extend certification periods so WIC families can have the certainty of staying on the program for longer without having to submit new paperwork or make clinic visits. (Federal official must approve waiver)
  • Texas should request a waiver to automatically enroll new SNAP families with babies and toddlers into WIC as they are income-eligible for both programs. (State must request a waiver)
  • Texans should urge Congress and the White House to extend the Pandemic EBT program and add preschoolers to replace the value of meals kids will miss with schools, daycares and summer feeding programs closed. (Federal legislation required)

Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)

Through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) nutritious meals and snacks are provided to eligible participants at child care centers, afterschool programs, adult daycare centers, and emergency shelters.

New COVID-19 Changes as of April 2, 2020:

  • The USDA has allowed providers approved to run CACFP to waive the requirement that participants eat together on-site, and can instead deliver meals or have families pick up meals if closed. (National policy)
  • The USDA now lets afterschool providers, including schools, continue to feed students without offering their usual activities like tutoring. (National policy)
  • Parents and guardians are allowed to pick up multiple days of meals without their children being present, to make it easier to comply with social distancing rules. (National policy)
  • The USDA allows providers to adjust the normal nutrition requirements if certain foods are not available. (National policy)

UPDATE: New COVID-19 Changes as of May 15, 2020:

  • Child and adult care centers and homes that are still open can also provide meals for pickup or delivery to families who normally attend. (National policy)
  • The USDA now allows guardians to pick up meals for adults enrolled in daycare programs as they are elderly or medically fragile. (National policy)
  • The USDA is allowing CACFP sites to provide free meals on weekends and holidays. (National policy)

UPDATE: Changes CPPP Still Recommends:

  • Texas officials should request that USDA extend all of their current time-limited waivers as the need to socially distance and record levels of unemployment and hunger will continue for months to come. (State must request extension of waivers)
  • Texans should urge Congress and the White House to extend the Pandemic EBT program and add preschoolers to replace the value of meals kids will miss with schools, daycares and summer feeding programs closed. (Federal legislation required)

It has been an incredibly difficult time for millions of Texans who have seen their jobs disappear and struggled to feed their families.  We are grateful for the amazing work of local school district employees, food bankers, state agency staff, federal officials and advocates from across the country to respond to this unprecedented emergency. Public officials have enacted major policy changes, but given the scale of the crisis, we must do even more. Hunger has reached record levels in Texas and will remain high for months to come. We must continue to remove barriers to getting food aid to people quickly so that at least Texans can stop worrying about going hungry.

Rachel joined the center in 2012 with a focus on food and nutrition programs as well as obesity. Before joining the center, she worked for the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) where she was in charge of research and data analysis and authored reports such as the School Breakfast Scorecard, Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation, and State of the States. Cooper also worked for the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), in their New York office, where she focused on helping families gain access to programs that provide work supports, such as tax credits, Medicaid, SCHIP, and food stamps. Cooper received her Masters in Human Development and Social Policy from Northwestern University.