A volunteer loads a box of groceries into a truck for delivery to a nearby community in the the Panhandle.
A volunteer loads a box of groceries into a truck for delivery to a nearby community in the the Panhandle. Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

The number of Texas families applying for federal aid to afford groceries almost doubled in April compared to an already high number the month before as record numbers of Texans continue to also request unemployment benefits because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In April, Texas received a staggering 417,468 applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That was more than triple the 114,937 applications filed in April 2019 and well above the 230,809 applications filed in March, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Since the week ending March 14, just shy of 2.1 million Texans have filed for unemployment benefits, more than in all of 2019.

“SNAP has always tracked unemployment, so as long as unemployment and poverty stay high, SNAP need will stay high,” said Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst with the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.

The boost in April applications is a combination of peak layoffs and a simplified SNAP application process that didn’t take effect until the end of March. In late March, the state temporarily removed barriers — like paystub, work and interview requirements — that made it harder for people to get approved.

These requirements could be reinstated June if the state or federal government doesn’t approve the extension of waiving these steps in the application.

Since late March, the state hasn’t announced further measures to expand who is eligible for SNAP. Food policy advocates are still pushing for the state to remove asset restrictions that disqualify most families who own a car valued at more than $15,000 from getting SNAP, Cooper said.

"That's still an issue. You can have zippo income right now and be out of food but not be able to get SNAP because the car you bought four years ago is still worth too much to qualify,” Cooper said.

While the state hasn’t made any changes to asset restrictions it did add two new programs last week: allowing online groceries for SNAP recipients and school meal benefits for families with school-age children.

As of last Wednesday, SNAP recipients can buy groceries online for curbside pickup or delivery. Currently, Walmart and Amazon are the only food realtors participating in the pilot program. Families can only use their SNAP funds for groceries. Delivery and convenience fees charged by the companies have to come out of their own pockets, according to a statement from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Additionally, the state is offering Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer — a school meal benefit to replace the meals students who get free and reduced meals missed while schools were closed. More than 3 million Texas schoolchildren are eligible for free and reduced school meals at school, Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement.

Each eligible child should get about $285 in benefits to replace the meals they’d normally eat at school.

Pandemic-EBT benefits were paid out through Lone Star Cards — the card SNAP families use for groceries — to hasten distribution.

SNAP families with eligible children were automatically enrolled in the program and should have all gotten their benefits as of Thursday, Cooper said. Families that don’t have SNAP benefits can apply for Pandemic-EBT in June, Cooper said.

Only school-age children are eligible for the benefits — not infants and toddlers, Cooper said. Were the “Heroes Act” — another multi-trillion dollar coronavirus relief bill — to pass, toddlers would be eligible for P-EBT, those benefits would extend through the summer and SNAP families' maximum benefits would increase by 15%.

"That was done during the Great Recession and it was one of the most effective parts of the stimulus back then," Cooper said of the benefit increase. "… food insecurity was down during the Great Recession because of that benefit bump. The Heroes Act would repeat that."

Disclosure: Center for Public Policy Priorities 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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