The U.S. Health and Human Services quietly extended the public health emergency declaration beyond July 16, giving no required 60-day notice this week that it would come to an end.
It means the public health emergency will continue to last for at least another 90 days once renewed, and the anti-poverty benefits associated with the declaration will carry on.
For food banks across Texas that were closely monitoring the deadline, it’s a short-term sigh of relief.
To address food shortages under the pandemic, in 2020 Congress funded a temporary increase in monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, allowing individuals and families to receive the maximum benefit for their household size regardless of income, so long as the public health emergency declaration continued.
To make the distribution of the benefits more equitable, a year later the Biden administration implemented a maximum benefit boost, providing an additional $95 in monthly payments for households that were already at or close to receiving the current maximum benefit prior to the pandemic.
As it stands now, a household of one in Texas is guaranteed a monthly SNAP payment of $250. A family of two sees $459 a month; $658 for a family of three; $835 for a family of four, and so on.
In Texas, more than 1.5 million households rely on SNAP food benefits. These payments average $332 a month, the latest state data in April shows.
According to Feeding Texas, a network of 21 member food banks that reaches 5 million Texans annually, if the public health emergency expires, monthly SNAP benefits in Texas would be cut by roughly $300 million. It would represent a 36 percent cut in those distributed benefits, and the loss of 112 million meals.
“That is what is at stake when the public health emergency ends,” Jamie Olson, director of policy advocacy at Feeding Texas told the Signal. “Every Texas household or family on SNAP will receive at least a $95 decrease in their monthly benefit, some a lot greater.”
No one would be exempt from the loss of the increased SNAP benefits. The anti-hunger Food Research & Action Center described the end of the SNAP emergency allotments as a “looming hunger cliff” for millions of Americans who would lose, on average, $82 a month in SNAP benefits.
In the event the public health emergency ends, Feeding Texas is expecting a significant increase in demand for support from their food banks and an increase in food insecurity throughout the state.
That’s on top of the increased demand that food banks have experienced throughout the pandemic, which has not let up despite the loosening of restrictions or the end of other pandemic federal benefits, like the child tax credit.
“Our network is serving twice as many Texas families as we did pre-covid, so without these interventions I’m sure it would have been much worse for a lot of people,” Olson said.
Melanie McGuire, chief program officer with the San Antonio Food Bank, said these expanded anti-poverty programs are critical, especially with the recent increased cost of living in utilities and groceries.
The latest Consumer Price Index figures show food prices have increased by 9 percent in the past 12 months.
McGuire said the San Antonio Food Bank saw a decrease in demand when federal benefit programs and supportive services like stimulus checks were put in place.
“People had the means and could access the food that they need,” McGuire. “And the charitable food systems didn’t have that same pressure that was bestowed on us when we were at the height of the pandemic.”
Many of the families accessing these benefits live under the poverty line or are facing money issues at a particularly vulnerable moment of their lives, McGuire said, recalling a San Antonio man who applied for SNAP benefits for the first time with his wife who was undergoing cancer treatment.
“The reality is we’re dealing with a very vulnerable state of our community,” McGuire said. “That’s the benefit of these programs, is that when that occurs those safety net programs are there to help weather that storm.”
“It’s not an opportune time to be cutting services,” McGuire said, explaining that the number of families still accessing services through the food bank have only dropped 10 percent since the start of the pandemic.
“I think we‘ve pushed the problem down the road, but it’s definitely a sigh of relief it’s not today,” McGuire said.
Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org