Allison O'Toole

A recent announcement by USDA to close the “Nominal Benefits Loophole” has ramifications for some citizens who may need help affording food.

The “beef” started when a Minnesotan, Rob Undersander, of Waite Park, testified that he and his spouse received $6,000 over 18 months from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). With over $1 million in assets, Undersander shared his story with a Minnesota House committee to call attention to what he saw as misuse of tax dollars, according to news reports.

Alerted to Undersander’s story, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue called a press conference and said the agency was taking action to strengthen SNAP by reforming what’s called broad-based categorical eligibility.

“We will be proposing a rule to close this loophole that allows states to bypass the Congressionally-mandated income and asset test,” said Perdue. “Unfortunately, automatic eligibility has expanded to allow even millionaires and others who simply receive (an informational) brochure to become eligible for SNAP, when they clearly don’t need it.”

In recent years, states have applied “categorical eligibility” if someone receives an informational brochure describing social services or a hotline. Nominal benefits have sometimes been given without checking income and assets to ensure households are eligible.

The new rule would allow categorial eligibility only in circumstances where strong eligibility tests are more likely to happen.

A household must receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) eligibility valued at a minimum of $50 per month under the new rule. The household must receive benefits for at least six months, and any non-cash TANF must provide benefits or services that support work – like subsidized employment or childcare.

USDA believes closing “expanded categorical eligibility” or “broad-based categorical eligibility” will eliminate SNAP benefits to 3.1 million participants to save money.

“This proposal will not only save money, but more importantly, it preserves the integrity of the program while ensuring nutrition assistance programs serve those most in need,” said Perdue.

But despite a strong U.S. economy or personal assets, some people are not able to afford food in 2019, said Allison O’Toole, Second Harvest Heartland’s CEO. Those who live on Social Security checks, people who work at minimum wage jobs, and even farmers or farm families may have trouble affording fresh fruit and vegetables and sometimes meat and milk.

“One in 11 Minnesotans suffer from food insecurity and that includes one in eight Minnesota kids,” said O’Toole. “What we’re really seeing right now is that hunger really impacts Greater Minnesota.”

To call attention to food insecurity, O’Toole traveled to Farmfest to highlight the importance of the ag community in the fight to beat hunger.

One of the nation’s largest and most efficient food banks, Second Harvest Heartland serves 89 million meals annually. The organization obtains food from manufacturers, farmers, hotels, restaurants, food drives and more. Agency partners such as food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, meal programs and after-school programs distribute the repackaged food.

Renovations are underway at Second Harvest Heartland’s new Brooklyn Park hunger-relief campus that is set to open in 2020. The new campus offers 29,300 square feet of temperature-controlled space to store and provide fresh produce, dairy and protein. Room for 200 volunteers to handle food received or sent from 25 dock doors are part of the new facility.

“The vision for this new facility is to better serve Minnesotans who need a little help by giving them healthier food,” she said.

O’Toole added that the average SNAP benefit across Minnesota is about $110 per month. She’s concerned that about 12,000 families in Minnesota will no longer qualify for these benefits under the new USDA rule. Some of those families are in rural areas and farming families will be affected.

She also encourages farm groups and individual farmers to consider donating food or dollars to local food shelves or Second Harvest Heartland. Many farmers and food processing plants provide excess commodities to the food bank.

“If I can leave you with one thing, it’s that the farmers who are working with us are really the unsung heroes in this fight to solve hunger,” O’Toole said.

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