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Aug 14 -- The Food and Nutrition Service is proposing to amend its regulations to make access and parity improvements within several food distribution programs, including the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), and USDA Foods disaster response. Written comments must be received on or before October 13, 2023 to be assured of consideration.

The Department of Agriculture's (the Department or USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) works to end hunger and obesity through the administration of 16 federal nutrition assistance programs. The Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID–19) pandemic had devastating impacts on our nation's food systems and economy, forcing millions of Americans to turn to the country's emergency food network for aid. Through the provision of food and administrative funding, USDA FNS food distribution programs have assisted this network—made up of thousands of food banks, food pantries, Tribal governments and other community partners—in feeding those in need.

As the pandemic subsides, FNS has a key opportunity to apply lessons learned to improve food distribution programs, including through regulatory updates. These proposed changes are intended to help ensure that eligible populations are able to more easily access the programs and streamline requirements for program operators.

This proposed rulemaking would amend regulatory provisions at 7 CFR 247, 250, 251, 253, and 254 to make access and parity improvements within several food distribution programs, including the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), and USDA Foods disaster response. The proposed changes are discussed in detail below. . . .
 
A. Commodity Supplemental Food Program . . . .
 
v. Eligibility Requirements (§ 247.9)

The Department proposes amending § 247.9(c) to increase CSFP's maximum income eligibility guidelines to 150 percent of the U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines published annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This would be an increase from the current limit of 130 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. The proposed increase to the income eligibility guidelines would provide increased access to the program by increasing the program's total eligible population and assist States in meeting their assigned caseloads. Increasing the maximum income eligibility guidelines would help bridge the gap between the number of seniors served and the total eligible caseload population nationwide without adding an administrative burden to applicants and local agencies.

Further, health data indicates that six in ten Americans live with at least one chronic disease, while one in four individuals live with two or more chronic conditions. The prevalence of one or more chronic medical conditions increases with age, indicating that many adults of CSFP-eligible age are likely to live with one or more chronic medical conditions. Additionally, data from the Administration for Community Living indicates that adults over age 65 spend an average of 19 percent of their household income on out-of-pocket healthcare expenditures. In 2014, people ages 65 years and up spent an average of $19,098 per year on health spending, 87 percent higher than the $10,212 for those ages 45–64 and 293 percent higher than the $4,856 for those ages 18–44. Seniors with incomes below 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Income guidelines are significantly more vulnerable to be at nutritional risk. Research from the Food Research and Action Center provides that there are more than 1.3 million food insecure individuals 65 years and older, and another 512,000 with very low food security. Through the proposed increase to the CSFP maximum from 130 percent to 150 percent of the U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines, the Department recognizes that medical expenditures take up a significant proportion of many seniors' incomes and allows for expanded access for seniors who spend a significant portion of their incomes on such expenses.

Although the Department considered the addition of a medical deduction for CSFP, the Department believes the proposed increase in the gross income limit for CSFP, without the addition of a medical deduction, supports simplicity and ease in program administration, consistent with current practice. Further, the Department considered the increased burden that a medical deduction would place on program applicants and participants, which could pose a barrier to participation for those who have concerns about sharing health information and/or costs.

The Department seeks public comment on the proposed change to increase CSFP's maximum income eligibility guidelines to 150 percent of the U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines without the addition of a medical deduction. Additionally, given the discretionary nature of CSFP and the need to target limited resources at individuals most in need, the Department would like to request public comment from CSFP stakeholders regarding whether there is a preference between the current proposal to increase CSFP's maximum income eligibility guidelines to 150 percent of the U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines, or an alternate level of 185 percent of the U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines. The Department recognizes that the alternate level of 185 percent of the U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines would align CSFP with the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP), which provides low-income seniors with access to access to fresh, nutritious, unprepared, locally grown fruits and vegetables, honey, and herbs.

In § 247.9(d), the Department proposes removing references to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). With this change, the income exclusions that previously followed the WIC regulations at 7 CFR 246.7 are proposed to be updated to be CSFP-specific by directly listing such exclusions.

Finally, the Department seeks public comment regarding potential future changes to eligibility requirements to allow CSFP applicants to demonstrate eligibility for CSFP via participation in another Federal means-tested program with income limits at or under the CSFP threshold. Per 7 CFR 247.9 Eligibility Requirements, CSFP applicants must meet the household income limit to be eligible for the program. Currently, State agencies have the option of allowing self-declaration of income or requiring proof of income to demonstrate eligibility. The Department is considering a future change to allow State agencies to accept participation in Federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) as demonstrating eligibility for CSFP. The Department is seeking feedback from CSFP State agencies, ITOs, and other stakeholders on this proposal, and specifically on the following questions:

1. Are there other Federal programs that you would like USDA to consider as options to demonstrate eligibility for CSFP?

2. Should USDA consider an option for State agencies to have the flexibility to include State means-tested programs to demonstrate eligibility for CSFP? . . .

C. The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) . . . .
 
iv. State Agency Options for TEFAP Eligibility Criteria, Documentation, and Public Communication (§ 251.5)

The Department proposes revisions to TEFAP regulations to increase alignment of income eligibility criteria nationwide, ensure access for vulnerable individuals, and ensure that statewide eligibility criteria are posted in a manner accessible to the public.

1. TEFAP Maximum Income Eligibility Range and State Agency Option for Alternative Income Eligibility Thresholds (§ 251.5(b)(2))

Per section 202A(b)(4)(A) of the Emergency Food Assistance Act of 1983 (Pub. L. 98–92 as amended), TEFAP State agencies must ensure that standards of eligibility require participating households to be comprised of “needy persons.” Current regulations at § 251.5(b)(2) require State agencies to develop statewide income-based eligibility standards, but do not include a suggested income range that States should use for developing those requirements. Proposed revisions to income-based standards would include a maximum income eligibility threshold that is at or between 185 percent to 250 percent of the U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines published annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). For example, a TEFAP State agency may set its maximum income eligibility criterion at 185 percent of the U.S. Federal Poverty Income Guidelines published annually by HHS. Another TEFAP State agency may set its maximum at 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Income Guidelines, while another TEFAP State agency may set its maximum at 250 percent. Consistent with current program requirements at § 251.5(b), such standards set by a TEFAP State agency must be applied uniformly statewide.

Overall, this proposed revision would reduce the variance in income eligibility criteria across States. As of September 2022, income eligibility ranged from 125 percent to 400 percent of U.S. Federal Poverty Income Guidelines, nationally. Establishing a national, allowable range for income eligibility would allow the Department to protect TEFAP access for those individuals most in need while simultaneously providing State agencies flexibility to develop income-based eligibility criteria which account for variance in cost of living across States.

Under this proposal, the Department would permit TEFAP State agencies to develop maximum income-based eligibility standards above this range if they provide rationale for their proposed threshold, subject to FNS approval. . . .

FRN: https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2023-17467 [26 pages]

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