More than $1 billion for public nutrition in COVID-19 bill

The government would provide lunch money for low-income children shut out of school meals by COVID-19 closures under the “families first” bill proposed by House Democrats. A vote on the bill, which would provide an additional $1 billion for other public nutrition programs, was expected on Thursday but delayed by negotiations with the White House. Democratic leaders said they would take up the bill today.

Some $500 million was earmarked for the WIC program to aid low-income pregnant women and mothers with young children who lose work due to the COVID-19 emergency. The USDA would get an additional $400 million to assist local food banks, and $100 million would be put into nutrition assistance grants for Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were “continuing our conversation on legislation that puts families first” in the federal response to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

When schools are closed, she said, “we have to make sure the food gets to the children.”

Under the Democratic-sponsored bill, states could use SNAP funds to provide assistance to low-income families with school-age children. Roughly 22 million children eat school meals for free or at a reduced price. They would lose access to the meals when schools are shuttered. To mitigate the loss, states would be authorized to provide SNAP benefits equal to the value of those meals once schools have been closed for at least five days.

Anti-hunger activists hoped the bill would include provisions to expand SNAP benefits or to avert stricter time limits, due to take effect April 1, on benefits for able-bodied adults aged 18 to 49 without dependents. Some early descriptions of the bill included those initiatives. Republican Sen. John Hoeven told reporters that in its original form, the bill was unacceptable to the White House and Senate Republicans.

The USDA said it approved waivers for 14 states that free them of the requirement to serve meals in a group setting to low-income children if schools are closed. The waivers apply to a variant of the USDA’s summer food program, which is available in low-income areas and reaches one-seventh of the children who get free or reduced-price meals during the school year.

As of midmorning Thursday, states with waivers were Washington, California, Maryland, Alaska, Utah, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Maine, Kansas, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Virginia, said the USDA.

For a summary of the bill, click here.

The text of HR6201 is available here.