On Dec. 4, President Donald Trump’s administration approved a policy change that, come April 1, effectively will cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) “food stamp” benefits from approximately 700,000 Americans. The policy shift will not affect Texans who utilize SNAP, though policy change proposals currently under review could impact more than 375,000 Texans if approved.
In a Monday interview, staff members at the Brazos Valley Food Bank shared insights into the changes and proposed changes and provided details about some of their programs that help Brazos Valley residents meet their food-related needs.
According to the USDA, SNAP benefits are only available to able-bodied adults without children for three months in a 36-month period unless the individual meets specific work requirements. Some states waived the time-limit regulation for areas with high unemployment. The new policy changes create a higher bar for states to waive the three-month time limit.
“The Department is committed to providing SNAP benefits to those who truly need them, but it must also encourage participants to take proactive steps toward long-term self-sufficiency,” a USDA statement from early December reads. The rule does not apply to children, parents, pregnant women, those older than 50 or those with a disability.
Food bank staff members said Monday that Texas was not impacted by the policy change because, several years ago, Texas officials set the area unemployment threshold at 10% to ask for a waiver, which no counties currently meet, which means that no area recipients are currently at risk. Local unemployment figures have been at or below 3% in recent months.
“The real simple summary is that Texas is often more stringent on their requirements than other states,” said Brazos Valley Food Bank programs manager Shannon Avila.
According to the Health and Human Services Texas website, Texas distributed $378,263,973 in funds to just more than 1.44 million “cases” or households.
In Brazos County, 8,253 “cases” received an average SNAP payment of $262 in December, which was right at the state average. In Robertson County last month, 1,311 cases received an average of $229.
Food bank referral specialist Abigail Gonzales-Davis said that other proposed federal changes that could impact some Texans still are under review. Gonzales-Davis said that eligibility for SNAP also looks at assets such as cars.
Texas law states that to be eligible for SNAP, participants may not own a car valued at more than $15,000. The Texas Tribune reported Dec. 18 that a potential change under review would “set nationwide standards” and lower that number to $4,650. That report also indicated that since 2001, Texas applicants could make no more than 165% of the federal poverty level for be eligible for SNAP. If approved, the number would fall to 130% of the poverty level, or roughly $33,000 for a family of four individuals.
Since Dec. 1, 2016, Cheryl Butler has worked as the food bank’s benefits assistance coordinator. Butler said that her role is to work with individuals and families to navigate the SNAP application process.
Butler said that even when she’s off work, people sometimes recognize her in the grocery store and approach her with SNAP-related questions. Butler said she wants people to know that the Brazos Valley Food Bank is mobile and that those with transportation challenges still can arrange consultations with her or other personnel.
“I’m a big-hearted person, and I feel like my role is to help people — not to just give. I’d rather do a hand up than a handout, because I’ve found that in the last three years since I’ve been here, people may come for SNAP help but also have a whole lot of other needs,” Butler said.
Butler said that her colleague, referral specialist Gonzales-Davis, helps area individuals connect with other nonprofits and other resources that can help them with a variety of challenges, from housing to transportation to childcare, through the food bank’s new Referral Partner Program.
Gonzales-Davis and Avila also said that when people reach out to the food bank, other needs and challenges often surface, including ones beyond the Brazos Valley Food Bank’s scope. Avila noted that “just giving people a phone number to call doesn’t generally result in getting people the help that they need.” Avila said that Gonzales-Davis helps people connect directly with the right organization or resource.
“My job is to be a liaison and collaborate with agencies that are already out there,” Gonzales-Davis said. “The Food Bank can’t do it alone, and the other agencies can’t do it alone. We have to be able to do it together, and make sure people are getting the help that they need and give that ‘hand up,’ and be there for people.”
To contact the Brazos Valley Food Bank, go to bvfb.org or call 979-779-3663.