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Farm Bill Mandates Changes to "Heat and Eat" Programs

February 21, 2014 — For many years, over a dozen state grantees have coordinated their LIHEAP and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) programs to help low-income households both heat their homes and feed their families. Signed into law this month, the 2014 Farm Bill made significant changes to the structure of these "Heat and Eat" programs, leaving grantees trying to determine if they will be able to continue offering them.

"Heat and Eat" programs allow low-income households receiving LIHEAP benefits to maximize their Standard Utility Allowance (SUA) under SNAP (commonly referred to as food stamps). The SUA is a fixed dollar amount for a household's utility expenses that is used when calculating shelter expenses for SNAP benefits. The LIHEAP benefit, even if it's only $1, can raise the SUA and result in increased SNAP benefits for a household. States implemented "Heat and Eat" to address the negative impacts rising energy costs have on low-income families meeting other basic needs. A 2011 survey by the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association illustrated this dynamic, finding that one-third of respondents had gone without food due to high energy costs.

Grantees operating a "Heat and Eat" contribute a nominal LIHEAP amount—usually $1, but, at least in one state, as high as $5. That will no longer be allowed under the 2014 Farm Bill. It requires states to provide at least a $20 LIHEAP benefit for "Heat and Eat." This provision was part of the Farm Bill's efforts toward decreasing overall SNAP funding. Some lawmakers thought "Heat and Eat" programs exploited a loophole by offering such minimal LIHEAP payments. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the $20 level would impact SNAP benefits for about 850,000 households each year with an average loss of $90 per month per household. This amounts to between an $8 billion and $9 billion reduction of SNAP benefits over ten years.

Since the Farm Bill's passage, "Heat and Eat" states are evaluating what the change means to their programs and how much supplemental funding they would need to continue them at the $20 level. The table below shows data reported by a handful of the states:

State
"Heat and Eat" Households
Additional Funds Needed to Continue
California
320,000
$6.1 million
Maine
10,000
$190,000
New Jersey
157,000
$3.2 million
New York
300,000
$6 million
Vermont
21,000
$400,000
Source: Media reports

Maine officials have told the media they will try to keep their "Heat and Eat" going, as has Vermont, whose governor says he wants to work with the legislature to keep "Heat and Eat" in place.



"The governor feels strongly that Vermont can and should work to fulfill the new 'Heat and Eat' requirements so that eligible Vermonters continue to receive federal food-stamp assistance to feed their families," a spokesperson for the governor stated.

Other states have yet to make a decision. Some say their legislatures would need to appropriate supplemental funding, because LIHEAP funding, which has decreased in recent years, is not enough to make up the difference.

Currently, the Farm Bill's $20 requirement is set to begin in March. However, in mid-February, over 70 members of Congress signed onto a letter asking US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to delay the "Heat and Eat" provision until this fall. The letter stated that states need more time to adjust policies to "accommodate this drastic cut and roll out the changes seamlessly." The Agriculture Department said its first step would be determining if the Secretary Vilsack even has the authority to delay the cuts.

Sources: Media reports, NEADA, LIHEAP Clearinghouse, Congressional Budget Office