By Caroline Kohler
Interested in policy? Check out our full series on policy initiatives in the field!
The “Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act” – also known as the HEROES Act (sometimes called “Heroes Act” in lower case, which is technically a misnomer) was introduced by Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY) on May 12, 2020.
The bill is 1,815 pages long and would open up another $3 trillion in aid to offset the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. If passed, the HEROES Act would allow for another round of stimulus checks for individuals and provide financial support to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments.
Of course, being over a thousand pages long and $3 trillion in size, there are lots of recipients designated for financial relief. For a full overview of the bill, you can read the official Congressional summary.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the nutrition-related facets of this bill, where the bill stands in Congress, and how you can take action.
Nutrition in the HEROES Act
SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)
38 million Americans utilized SNAP benefits to increase their access to food. SNAP is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic because people are out of work or earning less due to social distancing. The HEROES Act would temporarily increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent and would restrict implementation of three new rules that would decrease access to the program:
The “Requirements for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents” limits use of the SNAP program by adults without dependents (children, elderly parents, etc.) to only 3 months in a 36-month period if they are unemployed or not pursuing education.
The “Revision of Categorical Eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)” would eliminate “broad-based categorical eligibility” – a policy that allows states to adjust SNAP eligibility requirements to better serve families in the context of living costs in that state. BBCE allows states to raise the maximum income that is eligible for SNAP – which can help reduce what’s known as the “benefits cliff.” This is the point when a family or individual is able to increase their income enough to lose benefits but not enough to make ends meet.
The “Standardization of State Heating and Cooling Standard Utility Allowances” rule would change how SNAP applicants can factor in their utility costs into their application, in an effort to cut $4.5 billion from the SNAP program.
WIC (Women, Infants, and Children program)
The HEROES Act would temporarily increase the amount of money that recipients can use to buy fruits and vegetables. WIC operates slightly differently than SNAP – families can only use WIC money to buy very specific foods. Therefore, this change can be applied specifically to fruit and vegetable purchases.
School Meals and the CACFP (Child and Adult Care Food Program)
Changes would help both the food service programs and the families who normally receive these meals. The HEROES Act would help programs offset the costs of lost revenue from kids not being in school and children and adults not being in daycare programs.
Additionally, the earlier coronavirus relief bills created what’s known as the P-EBT program – Pandemic Electronic Balance Transfer. This program grants a one-time payment to families for each child who would have received a free or reduced-price lunch during the remainder of the school year that was cancelled. It was determined that whatever money the government would have spent feeding each child in the cafeteria would be given directly to the families to buy food. The HEROES Act would extend this benefit to include another payment for the money that would have been used to feed children at summer feeding programs or childcare programs during the summer.
Older Americans Act (OAA) nutrition programs
The HEROES Act would appropriate $20 million for senior nutrition programs, along with $10 million for health promotion and prevention services for elders.
Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program
The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program is run by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration to provide care for those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. The HEROES Act would provide $10 million to increase staffing and deliver more at-home meals for these immunocompromised patients.
Emergency Food Assistance Program
You may have seen images of piles of crops rotting because farmers weren’t able to sell it to their typical buyers, such as restaurants and schools, that were closed due to the pandemic. This Act would designate $25 million for the Farm to Food Bank program – providing funds to buy and transport these crops to food banks.
Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)
The FDPIR is an alternative to SNAP for those living on Native American reservations, who may not be able to access SNAP-approved stores. The HEROES Act would allow Native American families who usually use SNAP to use the FDPIR instead if it is more accessible to them during this time.
You can read more about the Academy’s position on the HEROES Act here.
Where the HEROES Act Stands in Congress
Current as of 6/19/2020
The HEROES Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on May 15, 2020. On June 1, it was “added to the Senate legislative calendar.” However, no date has been set for a time to debate the HEROES Act, though Senate leaders have indicated that they might take it up after the July 4th holiday. Right now, the bill is stalled.
Senate Republicans have indicated that they will not pass the HEROES Act due to its size and cost. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has said that the Democrats have made their offer of a bill they support and are waiting to hear a counteroffer from the Republicans. Such a counteroffer does not appear to be in the works.
On June 18, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) released a letter in conjunction with 18 other Senators to urge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.
How You Can Take Action
Given the current political climate, there is a strong chance that the HEROES Act will not pass the Senate. But that does not mean we need to give up hope!
A key way to take action is to email or call your Senators (in fact, calling is better because it’s harder to ignore calls – a staff member has to pick up and document the call). This action is especially important if you have Republican Senators or Senators who have not publicly voiced their stance on the HEROES Act.
And these days, social media is powerful in politics and tweeting at your Senators can be a “bonus” way to voice your support. Members of Congress want to make sure they know how their constituents feel about an issue, because these are the people who have the power to reelect them.
When you reach out to your Senators, be sure to emphasize the parts of the HEROES Act that are most important to you. This is a massive bill and there is a good chance that it could be scrapped. But if a replacement bill is drafted as a counteroffer to the House, you want to make sure that the parts that matter to you are included. Telling your Senator what specific issues matter to you helps them have an idea of what topics to bring up during debates and/or new drafts.
Also, don’t be afraid to flaunt your knowledge, credentials, and memberships! Tell them if you’re a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (they’ve likely interacted with the Academy’s lobbyists). Tell them that you are a future registered dietitian (or a current one). Members of Congress can’t be experts in every area, and they value hearing from people who deeply understand the issues.
Finally, the form letters created by the Academy’s Action Center are great, but they are often all counted in one line item when staffers are reporting comments to the Congressperson (i.e. “1,235 letters from Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics members”). Try to add your personal experiences whenever possible, especially over the phone. You can even add your thoughts into the template created by the Action Center.
For example, in April 2020, I responded to an Academy Action Alert for one of the coronavirus relief packages and inserted a passage about my experiences interning in a clinic that serves many families who utilize SNAP and WIC. I wrote about how the clinicians use these programs as part of their treatment plan for the kids in the clinic. It’s these kinds of stories that, with any luck, your Senator or Representative may remember and bring up in discussions with fellow members of Congress. They want to know what’s happening “on the ground” in their state or district, and you can be that voice.