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The COVID-19 pandemic changed 69-year-old Longview resident Gary Rogers’ life in one unexpected way. As a SNAP recipient, the amount he received on his Lone Star card to buy groceries rose from a paltry $16 a month to $232, as part of a federal stimulus package.
But after almost three years, Rogers is one of 3.7 million Texans who will lose their pandemic-related relief in March. Going forward, Rogers will receive just $23 a month.
“A year ago, I was very happy. I had plenty of money — I didn’t have to worry about where I was gonna get groceries or how much it was gonna cost me,” Rogers said. “It was very stressful before, and then we got the allotment and there was no stress. Now the stress is back.”
SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, offers food assistance to low-income individuals. In Texas, 79% of SNAP participants, who access that money for food through the Lone Star debit card, are families with children. And more than 27% are families with elderly or disabled members.
Every single SNAP recipient or household will now see their Lone Star card lose at least $95 this month. The average household will see a reduction of $212. That reduction, announced as coronavirus infections have fallen, comes alongside a rise in prices, stressing recipients’ ability to afford food.
“We have the highest inflation in 40 years, we are estimating that food costs are going to continue to rise over the next year at 8.6%, and most people that are eligible for SNAP are not ones that are seeing 8-10% raises,” said Libby Campbell, CEO of the West Texas Food Bank.
SNAP benefits are adjusted for inflation, but recipients and advocates say the adjustments aren’t enough to adequately account for the increasing cost of food.
Mary Majar’s 91-year-old mother Amalia Rodriguez has been a SNAP recipient for almost a decade. Before the pandemic, Rodriguez received $39 a month for groceries. During the pandemic, that amount rose to about $200 monthly. But according to Rodriguez’s daughter, the Odessa woman now receives less than ever, $26 a month. Majar suspects her mother’s Social Security benefits — which are counted as part of the income for a household and, if increased, may decrease a SNAP recipient’s eligibility — are to blame for the decrease.
Her daughter knows it won’t be enough.
“The way prices have gone up, that’s not going to be enough for her to buy groceries, to last her for a whole month, not even enough for two days,” Majar said.
Majar said she will have to start taking her mother to a food bank, a measure that hasn’t been necessary since before the pandemic. At her mother’s age, the limited options in the food bank sometimes make it even harder to find groceries she can eat.
Food banks act as a kind of distribution center: Food that is donated or purchased is compiled at the banks, which then distribute it to partner agencies and food pantries. Food banks in Texas are already struggling with the rising cost of food and an influx of customers from the stalled economy.
“We are bracing for the West Texas Food Bank to see probably north of 8-10% increase in need within the next 60 or 90 days. We’re already 27-28% higher than last year. We’re on track to already do over 15 or 16 million pounds of food this year,” Campbell said. “The question is, can your food banks in the great state of Texas continue to carry the weight without added resources from the state or federal government?”
Food bank leaders hope relief may come through a handful of initiatives proposed during this legislative session, according to Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas. The Texas Department of Agriculture is asking for a budget increase for its Surplus Agricultural Products Grant program, which allows food banks to purchase unsellable produce — for example, squash that’s the wrong color or misshapen carrots. It’s food that’s still nutritious, but far less expensive.
Because the value of recipients’ cars is factored into how much SNAP aid they are entitled to, some residents have received less money in benefits or been kicked off the program entirely because the value of their car increased. House Bill 1287 and Senate Bill 273 would reassess how the value of recipients’ cars is determined to better reflect today’s car values.
Another bill aims to improve college completion rates for SNAP recipients. Senate Bill 557 and House Bill 1501 would allow low-income students enrolled in vocational and technical degree programs to remain on SNAP benefits while they complete their degrees.
“It’s gotten to a point where we are really looking into the future and saying, ‘How are we going to be able to meet all this need without really rationing who we serve or how much food we’re able to give out?’” Cole said.
Campbell signaled that though most of the bills have bipartisan support in the Legislature, a packed legislative agenda means it’s not clear whether the requests will become reality.
The pandemic experiment
For advocates like Cole, of Feeding Texas, the pandemic SNAP increases prove that investing in nutrition helps lower food insecurity rates.
“When you look at food insecurity rates during the pandemic, you would expect them to have shot up, and the fact is they didn’t because we invested in SNAP,” Cole said. “We really got to see firsthand the benefit of a well funded federal nutrition safety net and a well supported charitable food system.”
While the public health emergency phase of the pandemic is ending, that does not mean there’s an end to food insecurity in Texas.
“The pandemic didn’t create the hunger problem,” Cole said. “And so, when you’re talking about that things have gone back to normal, it's like, well, what’s normal? Because one in eight Texas households struggled with food insecurity before the pandemic.”
Disclosure: Feeding Texas has been a financial supporter 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.
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