Texas Passes on $450 Million Summer Lunch Program for Low-Income Families

The USDA estimates the families of 3.8 million children could have received $120 per child to cover summer lunches. Texas opted out.

Siblings Stacy Hurd, 11, Angelica Hurd, 5, and Sheniya Hurd, 8, eat a free meal together at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, one of more than 70 sites the East Texas Food Bank sponsors in the summer. (Laura Skelding/The Texas Tribune)

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This year 35 states will participate in a $2.5 billion federal nutrition program that will help low-income parents buy groceries for their children when free school meals are unavailable during the summer months.

But Texas, which has 3.8 million children eligible for the program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has opted not to join this national effort. If it had, qualifying families would have received $120 per child through a pre-loaded card for the three summer months. The USDA calculated that Texas is passing on a total of $450 million in federal tax dollars that would have gone to eligible families here.

The reason for the pass is simple, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. When the USDA notified HHSC officials of their new Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT program on Dec. 29, that gave the nation’s second largest state only six months to get it up and running and that’s not enough time, said Tiffany Young, a spokesperson for the state agency.

Although the summer program would involve two other agencies as well – the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Department of Agriculture – HHSC would have to bear the brunt of the work because they would have to coordinate and direct the distribution of the preloaded cards to qualifying families.

Already on their plate is the cumbersome unwinding of Medicaid coverage. Since last April, the agency has removed more than 2 million Texans from the program since the federal government lifted continuous coverage rules during the pandemic, forcing those who still qualify for coverage to reapply. From HHSC’s perspective, launching an entirely new program wouldn’t be possible at this time.

Additionally, the USDA would only cover 50% of the administrative expenses for Summer EBT. It would be up to the state to cover the residual cost.

Young wrote that the HHSC, TDA and TEA have been in “active discussions” about each agencies’ responsibilities in accordance with Summer EBT.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture first piloted the summer program with Pandemic EBT, or P-EBT, during the 2019-2020 school year in all 50 states. P-EBT was created in response to children from low-income families who qualified for free and reduced-price school meals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Federal officials estimate 21 million children in 35 states, five U.S. territories and four tribes participating in the program would receive the extra money during the summer months.

Texas is one of 15 states that will not participate. Among the 15 is Alabama — opting out with similar rationale to Texas — attributing their reasoning to an insufficient amount of time to appropriate the funds necessary for the program.

For more than 3 million Texas children, school lunch may be the only full meal they get each day. According to Feeding Texas, a nonprofit organization that supplies food banks across the state, one in five children are affected by food insecurity — defined as an insufficient amount or unreliable sources of food to sustain oneself.

The Texas Department of Agriculture administers the free and reduced meal program for students during the school year. Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said he understands the disappointment some families have about Texas’ decision not to participate this year. He said his agency would have assisted if the decision was made to participate.

“The problem we’re facing — and we face this at the TDA in our school meals program and our summer feeding programs — everything is so much more expensive,” Miller said. “An extra 40 dollars could have gone a long way to offset that.”

Every Texan petitioned alongside statewide and regional organizations for the program last November, signing a letter to Cecile Young, executive commissioner of HHSC.

“Summer EBT is something that we have been advocating for for years, because we know how hard it is in a state as spread out as Texas to access enough food, to be able to afford enough food for their kids when school is closed,” Rachel Cooper told The Texas Tribune.

Though not as comprehensive as Summer EBT, food insecure children still have options for food assistance during the summer. Miller told the Tribune that “kids aren’t going to get fed any less” on account of the TDA’s expansion of their Summer Meals Program. Children 18 and under are eligible to receive a free meal at their meal sites across the state.

Parents can also find out if their child’s school district is one of many that provide free meals during the summer. National organizations, such as the YMCA and Boys & Girls Club, provide summer meal assistance at select locations.

Though it remains possible to secure a balanced meal without Summer EBT, Cooper believes it is still possible and necessary for Texas to join the program in 2025.

“Our kids need it,” Cooper said. “They deserve it, and we just need to do our part.”

Disclosure: Every Texan and Feeding Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/22/texas-federal-summer-lunch-program/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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