Proposed changes to who qualifies for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits could affect Rio Grande Valley residents who rely on the program to purchase food and, as a result, put a strain on food banks across the state.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a proposal that would close a “loophole” that the agency says allows states to offer benefits to people who might not otherwise be eligible.

“They’re raising the bar so that people that normally would be covered under eligibility — especially our state — would not have access to that eligibility after the policy has been changed,” said Omar Rodriguez, manager of communications and advocacy for the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley.

In Texas, about 3,342,252 individuals participated in the SNAP program in March 2019, according to data from USDA. That number decreased in April to 3,322,131 participants.

In June, there were 216,379 individuals in Hidalgo County who were eligible to receive SNAP benefits, according to data from Texas Health and Human Services.

In Starr County there were 19,510 eligible individuals and 105,769 eligible individuals in Cameron County.

Those figures include individuals deemed eligible whether or not they actually received benefits.

It’s unclear how many people locally would suddenly find themselves bumped off the program if the changes were to go into effect, but the USDA estimates about 3.1 million SNAP participants would be affected nationally, or about 125,000 participants statewide.

Rodriguez noted that decreasing access to SNAP benefits would place more of the burden on organizations like the food bank.

“It will increase the strain on the 21 food banks in the state because if families — working families, in particular — are not able to access the SNAP supplement then they will go to the food banks for food assistance and that will put a bigger strain on the food banks in the state,” Rodriguez said.

He also said there was a misconception about people who rely on the benefits.

“These are families that are already working,” he said, noting that Texas requires individuals to work at least 20 hours a month in order to access SNAP.

“Historically, SNAP participation does ebb and flow with the economy so when the economy is really bad, like in 2008, SNAP participation went up and as the economy has been getting better, SNAP participation has been slowly decreasing,” Rodriguez said. “It decreases on its own based on the economy.”

Two local congressman expressed opposition to the proposal with U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, issuing a statement last Thursday highlighting its effects on participants.

“The Trump Administration’s proposed changes to SNAP would eliminate eligibility for millions of people – including seniors, children, hardworking families, and those with disabilities,” Gonzalez said in a prepared statement. “This rule is a complete bypass of congressional authority and would increase food insecurity for those on fixed retirement incomes, students who qualify for free school lunches, and impede the ability for hardworking families to put food on the table.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, also said in a statement last Thursday that it was the duty of Congress, and not the administration, to determine where to allocate funds.

“This program is a lifeline for millions of American, including more than 48,000 households in the 28th District of Texas,” Cuellar stated. “As members of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, my colleagues and I have the responsibility to allocate funding for SNAP and other critical federal programs, not the Administration.”

In addition to his comments on the USDA’s proposal, Cuellar also announced that $337,000 were being awarded to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission from the USDA’s SNAP Fraud Framework grant program to improve recipient fraud prevention, detection and investigation efforts.

“SNAP plays a critical role in the battle against hunger for people across Texas and throughout the country. However, SNAP cannot achieve its primary purpose of helping individuals afford a basic meal without maintaining program integrity,” Cuellar said in the statement. “This grant will help the state of Texas create new ideas and technologies that improve program operations in order to more effectively serve eligible children, students, seniors, and families.”

He also announced he would be co-sponsoring the College Student Hunger Act of 2019, which was introduced by U.S. Rep Al Lawson, D-Florida, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

The bill would expand access to SNAP benefits to low-income college students by allowing students who are eligible for Pell Grants and independent students to apply for the benefits.

“No college student should have to choose between buying textbooks and going hungry,” Cuellar stated. “Our nation is better served when our students are focusing on their studies instead of where their next meal will come from.”