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Texas faces higher hunger rates than every other state — except Arkansas

Two people wearing traffic vests and caps are bagging oranges.
Yfat Yossifor
Darlene Hess, left, and Deedra Bouline bag oranges during a North Texas Food Bank and Tarrant Area Food Bank drive-thru food distribution event in March 2023.

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Texas has the second-highest rate of residents at risk of going hungry in the nation. That bleak ranking comes from new data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The new USDA data revealed a dramatic increase in food insecurity across the nation in 2022, jumping by 31% across households. Among households with children, the increase was even more severe: The share of families struggling to put enough food on the table went up by 41%.

Amid the rising tide of hunger nationwide, only Arkansas faced a worse hunger crisis than Texas. The agriculture department found that nearly 1 in 6 Texas households are food insecure, significantly higher than the national average. That’s 1.7 million households in Texas, about 300,000 more than the year before.

Celia Cole, who leads the Feeding Texas network of food banks, called the numbers “not surprising but shocking.”

“The ‘why’ is pretty obvious: You’re still seeing people recovering from the economic impacts of the pandemic, and you’re seeing reductions in the assistance going to families as well as assistance going to food banks to help families,” Cole said.

Less help and more inflation

Unprecedented financial aid rolled out during the pandemic largely worked to stave off a major recession and helped cut child poverty nearly in half. By 2022, when the USDA data was collected, many of the programs had been cut back and financial help for working families had ended, driving child poverty back up significantly.

“That extra assistance went away while people were still trying to recover. And then you add to that a sharp increase in food prices, which is as devastating for families as the loss of those extra benefits,” Cole said.

Food prices rose by nearly 10% over 2022. Housing prices also spiked in 2022, as inflation stretched many Texans paychecks to the breaking point.

Food banks in Texas have struggled to serve more people over the past year than they did at the peak of the pandemic, Cole said.

Who’s facing hunger

Stacie Sanchez Hare, who leads No Kid Hungry Texas, said children are among the most impacted by food insecurity. And research shows that kids who miss meals because their family runs out of food can face lifelong consequences.

“We know that when kids are nourished, they’re able to learn, they’re able to thrive, there’s a decrease in their discipline referrals, there’s an increase in attendance and in academic performance,” Hare said.

Federal nutrition assistance programs help keep people from going hungry — especially kids — those programs are largely left to states to administer. But Texas leaves a lot of federal money on the table, according to Bob Sanborn from the advocacy group Children at Risk, because it doesn’t do enough to make sure eligible households get the help they qualify for.

“We’re cutting our nose off despite our face, because we’re not doing the right things to make sure kids are fed so they can do well. We’re not doing the right things to make sure families are fed so they can be more productive. And frankly it helps Texas agriculture and grocery stores,” by creating more consumer demand, Sanborn said.

In addition to families with children, seniors and Black and Latino households face disproportionately greater rates of hunger and food insecurity. Sanborn worries outreach to help low-income Latino families, in particular, sign up for SNAP or WIC suffers because of anti-immigrant sentiments among the state’s elected leaders, resulting in higher-than-average rates of food insecurity.

“We don’t see the state government moving in the direction of helping Latinos get access the benefits because [elected leaders] have created their own mythology that … ‘illegal immigrants’ are getting access to benefits,” Sanborn said. “That is not the case: We’re talking about American children with Latino surnames who aren’t getting access to benefits they should get.”

Political headwinds

With Congress expected to take up the federal Farm Bill soon, some anti-hunger advocates are watching with worry. GOP lawmakers have lobbied persistently for cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation’s largest anti-hunger program that used to be called food stamps. Far-right House Republicans have also worked to shrink the Women, Infants and Children nutrition assistance program.

“Even if there isn’t any cut to food assistance in the farm bill … the benefits have not kept up [with inflation]. So even if we hold the line, that’s going to be essentially a cut for people on SNAP,” Cole said.

Sanchez Hare worries tweaks to how federal nutrition programs are administered or benefits are calculated could leave Texans with less food.

“The people crafting these policies may not have ever experienced poverty or food insecurity in their lives,” Sanchez Hare said. “But it’s going to affect millions of people.”

Though it’s been Republicans who have blocked aid for those facing food insecurity — both in Texas and in Washington — Sanchez Hare said her group has polling that shows broad bipartisan support for helping people keep food on the table.

Will 2023 numbers be worse?

The USDA hunger numbers are also a lagging indicator, and hunger experts say the challenge may have worsened since data collection closed at the end of 2022.

Since then, the federal government has ratcheted back SNAP benefits to pre-pandemic levels, reducing grocery money for 1.6 million Texas households by about $212 per month in March. That’s a roughly $340 million cut to Texas families and individuals.

In addition to SNAP cuts, about 900,000 Texans have lost Medicaid coverage as the state works to re-enroll millions of people insured by the program in the process of unwinding pandemic-era protections.

“We’re seeing a really significant backlog of several hundred thousand who are waiting up to four or five months to get benefits, and those folks are also showing up in our [food bank] lines,” Cole said.

Anti-hunger advocates can point to some good news from the last legislative session. More kids are receiving free school breakfasts this year because that program was expanded, though the legislature didn’t take similar action to expand school lunches.

Lawmakers also updated state SNAP rules so fewer people will be blocked from qualifying for benefits because of their car’s value, though that rule has yet to be implemented, Cole said. The state is also planning to buy more food from Texas farmers to help food banks meet demand.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Christopher Connelly is a KERA reporter based in Fort Worth. Christopher joined KERA after a year and a half covering the Maryland legislature for WYPR, the NPR member station in Baltimore. Before that, he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow at NPR – one of three post-graduates who spend a year working as a reporter, show producer and digital producer at network HQ in Washington, D.C.
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