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Advocates Worry Food Aid Cuts Could Hurt Texas Families

Todd Wiseman / Julie Jordan Scott, Texas Tribune

As Congress debates proposed cuts to programs that help feed needy families and school children, some school officials and advocates for low-income families are concerned about how the changes could affect Texans who rely on food stamps and reduced price school lunches.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, provides food for 3.6 million Texans each year. But some lawmakers argue that the program has grown too large and become too expensive, and they are looking for ways to cut SNAP in the 2012 Farm Bill.

"A lot of Texas families rely on SNAP, especially now," said Jonathan Lewis, food policy specialist for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based liberal think tank. "Families that already are having trouble paying for their electrical bill, rent and the gas in their car could struggle even more." 

The House Agriculture committee proposed cutting $33 billion from SNAP earlier this year, including a provision to restrict automatic enrollment in SNAP for families that meet the threshold for Social Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that change could save the government more than $11 billion over ten years. But because a family's enrollment in SNAP affects enrollment of the children in the reduced and free lunch program at schools, the restriction could also mean lost lunches for 280,000 children.

Though that proposal was abandoned when the Senate decided not to consider the House's budget, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said he remains concerned that other cuts to the school lunch program loom.

“We have a large number of kids that don't have access to food, so this would affect us tremendously, especially with the large growth that we've had,” Cuellar said. “Texas could be hit pretty hard.”

More than 3 million children receive free or reduced price lunches in Texas each year, or about 62 percent of children enrolled in school, according to the Kids Count Data Center. In some school districts, that percentage is even higher.

Dennis McEntire, superintendent of Presidio Independent School District, said 100 percent of the children in his district depend on federal free or reduced price lunches. If eligibility were restricted, even minimally, in the final Farm Bill, it could have a significant effect on his district. 

“We haven't lost money on our food service program, and that's the best you can hope for in these circumstances,” McEntire said. “The only reason we can do that is because of the free and reduced price lunch program, because we have such high poverty in our community and a low tax base.” 

But many Republicans say the proposed cuts are necessary and reasonable. 

"The House Agriculture Committee was tasked with identifying $33 billion in savings over 10 years.  We did that by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse in the SNAP program, which allowed us to reduce spending and better target the program to families in need,” U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, said in a statement about his vote for cuts proposed by the House Agriculture Committee.

With the Senate still working out its version of the Farm Bill, and a House version on the horizon, it is too early to say what SNAP funding will look like. But Cuellar said party leaders should work together to make cuts that are both morally and fiscally responsible.

“It is so important to the ranches and farmers, but also important to our kids and food banks, and that's what we try to explain,” Cuellar said. 

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