Valley’s food safety social net reacts as Texas passes on $350 million in children’s food assistance

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Children in the Rio Grande Valley and the rest of the state are being left out of a new federal program aimed at helping address food insecurity during the summer break.

Texas is among 15 states choosing not to participate this year in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program, which USDA piloted in nine states before being made permanent by Congress in 2022. In states that do participate, low-income families will be eligible to receive $40 per month per school-aged child to help cover the cost of groceries.

More than 29 million children across the country stand to benefit from the program, according to USDA’s estimate. Summer EBT essentially serves as a backstop to summer meal programs already offered by school districts across the country. Meanwhile, food insecurity in Texas is nowhere more acute than in the Valley.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) said it is not implementing the program this year — leaving $350 million on the table — because it lacks the administrative resources.

In a statement to The Brownsville Herald, HHSC Press Officer Tiffany Young said ensuring that children have access to “adequate nutrition supports” during the summer is a priority for HHSC, and that HHSC, the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Texas Education Agency “have been in active discussions” about implementing the new, permanent EBT program in the state since its authorization by Congress.

However, with Interim Final Rules and additional guidance from the Food and Nutrition Service regarding the program not being made available to states until Dec. 29, implementing it this year would have been very difficult, she said.

“Current resource constraints at the state agencies, the level of effort needed to implement a new program, and the need for new appropriations from the Legislature (make it) not feasible for Texas to successfully launch Summer EBT in 2024,” Young said. “HHSC will continue to work with TDA, TEA and our stakeholders to evaluate implementing a Summer EBT program in Texas in the future.”

She advised Texans in need of assistance to contact the Texas Information and Referral Network online, or by calling 211 and selecting Option 1. The network provides information and referrals to governmental and community social services, including food pantries.

USDA also provides school districts with summer food assistance for school-aged children through its Seamless Summer Option program.

Omar Rodriguez, director of grants and government relations for the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, said the state’s decision not to implement Summer EBT this year is unfortunate.

Children eat lunch at Flores Zapata Elementary School on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024, in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez| [email protected])<

“We are disappointed in that decision, but we also understand that HHSC has been having to deal with a lot of backlog and repercussions from COVID,” he said. “They’ve lost a lot of staffing, so right now they’re working really hard to keep up and get rid of that backlog with staff. Unfortunately I don’t think they’re in a position to bring in another program. We wish they could. But we also understand why they are unable to at the moment.”

At the same time, the additional help “would definitely be welcome,” Rodriguez said.

“I think Summer EBT is a wonderful program,” he said. “I think it’s something to be proud of, of our elected officials, that they passed it. I think if HHSC could just fill the job vacancies that they have, to get enough navigators onboard, we can get closer to adopting that Summer EBT.”

Rodriguez said the Food Bank doesn’t see political motives in the state’s decision, and that he thinks Texas will eventually implement the program.

“I just wish I could know the timeline on that, but the sooner the better,” he said. “I think it’s just something that would really benefit the children of our state. … The more support families get, the shorter our lines are. Food banks really can’t do everything to help solve hunger. We’re just a small part of the food safety net. So whenever we have benefits that are available for families, that’s just a great thing.”

Victor Rivera, executive director of Loaves and Fishes of the Rio Grande Valley, said Summer EBT would be welcome since it would mean less strain on his organization’s general fund, “because of course we do rely on donations.” As part of its mission, Loaves and Fishes serves free breakfast, lunch and dinner year round. The good news is that demand ticked down between 2022 than 2023, he said.

“Our meal count has dropped,” Rivera said. “That’s not to say that people are short of food, but it seems that people are finding means and resources to feed families.”

Still, he thinks Summer EBT is important.

“Undoubtedly it would help if there was a way Texas could tap into those much needed funds, then it would alleviate the pressure on us, Loaves and Fishes in particular, but also all the other soup kitchens in the state,” Rivera said.

Children grab their school lunch at Andrew Jackson Elementary Wednesday, Jan. 17 2024 in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez| [email protected])

Jackie Cruz, director of food service for the Brownsville Independent School District, said BISD will still offer meals through the Seamless Summer Option whether or not the state implements Summer EBT, adding that the district also partners with other community organizations to ensure students aren’t going hungry.

“We’ll continue to make sure that we’re bridging that gap for those students,” she said. “Summer can be the hungriest time for children. We do all that we can here with the support of our administration and the school board to make sure students have access to these healthy meals throughout the year.”

It’s the same at other school districts through the Valley, Cruz said.

“I think I can speak on behalf of my counterparts in other districts,” she said. “Yes, they all have summer programs. They may do it differently. Either way, the premise and the intent is the same, and that is to make sure that students have access to these meals.”

J.J. Trevino, child nutrition director for Roma ISD, said his district will also keep providing free meals to students through the Seamless Summer Option program, and also will deliver Meals on Wheels over the summer, though he thinks implementing summer EBT would be hugely beneficial — especially with food being so expensive.

“If the state wasn’t going to go through the hassle, because they’re understaffed or whatever their reason is for this year, hopefully next year and the years after that we can qualify for it,” he said. “That would be awesome. … I foresee that it would help a lot of people in our community for sure, students in our community. It would help a lot of parents feed their children. For next year, let’s just not make excuses and make it happen.”