Texas is turning down hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance that would help hungry children.
On Dec. 29, 2022, President Biden signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023. This law established a permanent nationwide summer EBT benefit. The Summer EBT program (via the U.S. Department of Agriculture) can help states, territories and even some tribal nations address the food insecurity that children face over the summer.
Children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line qualify for free meals in school. According to the research and advocacy nonprofit Children at Risk, 70% of Houston children come from low-income families, thus qualifying them for free meals in school. The problem is that when school lets out for summer, these same low-income children are left without meals. “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,” dozens of groups wrote in a Nov. 28 letter to the Health and Human Services Commission.
The Summer EBT program aims to change that. It provides families with $40 a month per school age child to help cover the cost of food and groceries (the money is placed on EBT cards). The USDA estimates that millions of children will benefit from the program and research indicates that Texas could have received roughly $350 million from the program. At least 30 states have already signed up –but Texas isn’t one of them.
Texas officials offered one of two excuses for this lapse. Lena Wilson, assistant commissioner for food and nutrition at the Texas department of agriculture, told Austin’s NPR station KUT that the program was released after the Texas legislative session had already concluded in May 2023. 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.
Tiffany Young expressed 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.
This is particularly disappointing, given that Texas ranks second in the nation for food insecurity (meaning that residents’ access to food is limited or unreliable). Nearly 1 out of 6 Texas households are food-insecure, according to the USDA. But now, the earliest that the state can participate in this new program is 2025.