Most states are rolling out a new summer food assistance program for kids. Texas isn’t one of them.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is launching a program to help states, territories and some tribal nations address the food insecurity children can face over the summer when school is out. Congress approved legislation in 2022 to make the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer program a permanent, nationwide program after the USDA piloted it in nine states.
Starting this summer, states participating in the program will be able to provide low-income families with $40 a month per school-aged child to help cover the cost of groceries. The USDA estimates more than 29 million children will benefit from Summer EBT.
States had until Jan. 1 to let the USDA know if they plan to implement the program. More than 30 states have signed up including Arkansas, California and New Mexico. The USDA expects the list to grow in the days ahead.
“USDA is pleased to see the progress made in launching Summer EBT in its inaugural year and looks forward to sharing the full list of participating states, tribes and territories in the coming days,” an agency spokesperson said in an email to KUT.
Texas, however, is one state that will not be joining the list for this year. Rachel Cooper is the director of health and food justice at Every Texan, a left-leaning think tank based in Austin. She said implementing Summer EBT would have been a big help for Texas families and benefitted the state’s economy.
“It’s a no-brainer to me that we should be doing Summer EBT that would help about 3.7 million children and is estimated to bring about nearly a half a billion [dollars] into the economy over the summer,” she said. “This is really just a failure on our part to do the work to get this done for this year.”
Every Texan is one of dozens of groups, food banks and schools that signed onto a letter, spearheaded by Feeding Texas, last November urging the state to participate in the Summer EBT program.
“For many children in Texas, the end of the school year marks the end of consistent and reliable meals. This abrupt disruption can lead to a decline in nutritional intake, which can cause physical and mental health problems and lead to poor educational performance when school begins again,” the groups wrote in the Nov. 28 letter.
But Texas officials said the timing of the rollout of the USDA program made it difficult to implement this summer. Lena Wilson is the assistant commissioner for food and nutrition at the Texas Department of Agriculture.
“Based on the time that this program was released, it was already after our [regular] legislative session had concluded in the state,” she said.
That presented a challenge because the USDA requires states that are participating in Summer EBT to cover 50% of the administrative costs for operating the program and agencies had not requested that funding, Wilson said. However, the governor and the Legislative Budget Board do have the ability to transfer funds between programs within an agency or between different agencies.
Ultimately, said Wilson, the three Texas agencies that would have a role in implementing the program determined it would not be possible to participate in 2024. The Texas Department of Agriculture, for its part, would be responsible for working with the Texas Education Agency to identify students who may be eligible for the program. The majority of the work to run the program would fall on the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
HHSC Press Officer Tiffany Young told KUT in a statement that the USDA did not release key information and guidance on running the Summer EBT program until last month.
“Due to states just receiving Interim Final Rules on Dec. 29, 2023 and additional guidance from the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) regarding the program, 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, it is not feasible for Texas to successfully launch Summer EBT in 2024,” Young wrote in an email.
The agency said it plans to continue working with TDA, TEA and other stakeholders to figure out whether Texas can participate in the Summer EBT program in the future.
One of the challenges HHSC is facing right now is that it is behind on processing applications for another food assistance program.
According to data from the agency, as of Dec. 29, 2023, 62% of SNAP applications were processed on time, including both expedited and non-expedited applications. The federal government requires less than 5% of SNAP applications to be delayed at any given time.
Every Texan said SNAP is facing delays because HHSC is in the process of rechecking Texans’ eligibility for Medicaid after a pause on disenrollments during the pandemic ended. The group said the Medicaid unwinding effort has been underfunded, understaffed and is on too tight of a timeline.
About 1.7 million people in the state have lost health care coverage, including hundreds of thousands of children, primarily for procedural reasons not because they weren’t eligible. Only a third of the people removed from Medicaid last year were confirmed ineligible.
Young said in an email to KUT that HHSC is taking steps to provide benefits to eligible Texans as quickly as possible and has cut down the time it takes to process applications.
"HHSC is also working with our federal partners to implement immediate strategies to reduce the number of SNAP and Medicaid applications in the queue and ensure that the redetermination process operates as smoothly as possible," she wrote.
Cooper said while it is too late for Texas to participate in the Summer EBT program this year, the state should be able to prepare to implement it in 2025.
“It needs the state agencies to have the processes in place and the support from the legislature, and with that, we really hope that 2025 will be the turning point for families,” she said.