Congress should protect, strengthen food benefits

2023 has brought a wave of challenges to Texas families. We saw record levels of inflation across essentials like rent, gas, and groceries, at the same time pandemic-era benefits expired. As a result, as many as 2 in 3 Texans are one financial emergency away from not being able to afford groceries.

While these economic hardships were felt nationwide, Texans were among the most affected. A new report from the USDA shows Texas has the second highest rate of food insecurity in the nation. As we zoom in, we see even higher levels in the Rio GrandeValley, with as many as 1 in 3 children facing hunger in some of our communities.

We see these realities every day at the Food Bank of the Rio GrandeValley, where we provide emergency food assistance to more than 85,000 people over the course of a week. The number of working families seeking emergency food assistance increases year over year as rent, food and retail prices on necessities continue to increase disproportionately to wages.

Federally funded nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC are designed to provide an additional layer of support for family grocery budgets, while free and reduced-price school meals can provide two balanced meals a day, five days a week.

However, there are barriers that prevent families from receiving benefits for which they qualify.

A common issue in our border communities is a hesitancy to apply for these nutrition benefits, for fear that one’s immigration or residency status may be impacted. It’s important for families to know that nutrition programs such as SNAP, WIC, and free school meals are not considered a public charge and have no immigration consequences, but many still don’t access them. It’s estimated 25% of people in mixed-status immigrant families still abstain from applying for these benefits, even though they qualify.

What’s more, families relying on those benefits have had a rough year.

In March, emergency allotments that boosted SNAP benefits during the pandemic expired, with families seeing their monthly cash assistance drop by as much as $300. In May, already strict work reporting rules were expanded for able-bodied adults without dependents, putting 44,000 Texans at risk of losing food assistance.

And we’ve seen repeated attempts this year to impose budget cuts to programs like SNAP and WIC, including proposals to cut dollars earmarked for fresh fruits and vegetables by more than half, limiting the ability to purchase this essential component of balanced nutrition and healthy child development.

As Congress neared the deadlines to reach an agreement, government shutdowns became a concerning possibility. These shutdowns mean entire federally funded programs — and the millions of families that rely on them — are put at risk.

Fortunately, Congress reached a stopgap agreement in November that avoided a catastrophe in the short term, but the clock is ticking for lawmakers to ensure critical government assistance programs like SNAP and WIC aren’t put in jeopardy. Most notably, we need lawmakers to fully fund WIC so it can continue to provide qualifying families with the resources to buy things like formula, milk and fresh produce. In Texas, WIC supports more than 787,000 children, infants and moms and without additional funding, they could face waitlists for the first time in three decades.

Not all progress was lost this year. While the debt limit deal restricted access to SNAP benefits for some, it did create new exemptions for veterans, youths ages 18-24 aging out of foster care, and individuals experiencing homelessness.

Texas state legislators also made an important step toward expanding school meal access. During the 88th Texas Legislature, we successfully garnered a state budget approval to cover the cost of school breakfast for reduced-price eligible children, impacting nearly 70,000 Texas schoolchildren.

If we want to reverse the alarming trend in child poverty and hunger, the time is now. We have an opportunity in 2024 to not only protect the programs we know work, but also improve and strengthen them as an investment in our future. Our families in the Rio GrandeValley and across Texas deserve stability, and our children deserve three healthy, balanced meals a day without question.

Cruselva Pena is program manager of No Kid Hungry Texas. Libby Ann Saenz is co-chief executive officer of the Food Bank of the Rio GrandeValley.