Perdue: USDA limited in corona response, states can waive ABAWD rule
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee today that the Agriculture Department will do what it can to make sure people get food during the coronavirus crisis, but that some changes would require congressional action.
Perdue urged the subcommittee to consider reauthorization of the Pandemic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or P-SNAP — which was last implemented for one year during the H1N1 virus in 2009, but has since expired.
Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., chairman of the subcommittee, said he would consider that, but he also told Perdue that he should follow his own motto of “do right and feed everyone.”
Perdue said, “This is a time we need to pull together” and put partisanship aside.
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Bishop urged Perdue to stop implementation of a rule that will make it harder for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) to get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. The rule is scheduled to go into effect in three weeks and would cause 700,000 people to lose their benefits.
Moving forward with the ABAWD rule “seems particularly cruel,” Bishop said, because able-bodied adults without dependents whose benefits require working 20 hours per week might need to “self-quarantine” and would not be able to meet the work requirement.
Perdue ignored the direct question but said he had “good news” on that point because the states have authority to determine that SNAP rules can be liberalized for “good cause.”
The “good cause” regulation “would eliminate the need for work requirements,” Perdue said. “It is already there.”
USDA has already granted waivers for school meals programs to serve children when schools close in California and Washington state and has received a request from Utah, but can only issue those waivers after the state has requested it, Perdue said. But Perdue said that if the states apply for the waiver they are likely to get it.
USDA is waiving requirements that food be served in “congregate feeding areas” in low-income areas because medical professionals are not recommending that people gather in such settings, Perdue said. That would apparently allow “grab and go” meals.
But the use of summer feeding programs when schools are closed is limited because summer food programs can run only in areas where at least 50% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, according to an official from the Food Research Action Center, the Food and Environment Reporting Network reported.
“The gap is huge,” said Crystal FitzSimmons of FRAC told FERN, noting that in 2019 the summer feeding problem served only 2.9 million school children, about one-seventh of the 22 million students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals in the school lunch program.
Perdue said USDA can issue that waiver in low-income areas, but he said USDA lawyers don’t believe “we have the legal and statutory authority to do that in non-low-income areas.”
Perdue told reporters Monday that only Congress can raise SNAP benefit levels and that he did not have a recommendation on whether that should be done.
“Food stamp benefits are set by Congress. From my perspective, we have not seen the impact” nationwide from the coronavirus, Perdue said, according to FERN.
Bishop said that Congress may raise the SNAP benefit rates in an economic bill dealing with the coronavirus.
The hearing was called to consider President Donald Trump’s budget proposal for USDA and related agencies and, in an opening statement, Bishop said that the committee would reject the proposal because it would cut nutrition and conservation programs, crop insurance and bringing high-speed Internet service to rural America.
Bishop also announced that Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., the subcommittee ranking member, had decided he should not come to the hearing because he is ill. Bishop did not say the cause of Fortenberry’s illness. Fortenberry designated Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., the former subcommittee chairman, as the top Republican at the hearing. Republican members said they did not agree with the Trump administration’s proposal to cut the budget for crop insurance.
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