Menendez, Booker, Sires, Payne Urge USDA to Expand SNAP and WIC Benefits to Support Newark Residents Affected by Lead in Drinking Water

Menendez, Booker, Sires, Payne Urge USDA to Expand SNAP and WIC Benefits to Support Newark Residents Affected by Lead in Drinking Water

   NEWARK, N.J. - U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, along with Congressmen Albio Sires (N.J.-08) and Donald Payne (N.J.-10) today urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to offer additional assistance to serve the immediate needs of Newark residents affected by known or suspected lead service lines. By making temporary changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC), USDA can help ensure that Newark’s families and children are being safeguarded from potential lead exposure.

Specifically, the lawmakers called for: 

  • Temporarily increasing SNAP benefits for affected residents so they aren’t faced with the choice of buying food or bottled water.
  • Making “Ready to Feed” baby formula available at WIC locations and allowing for a temporary increase in WIC benefits so “Ready to Feed” formula, which is typically more expensive than powder formula, doesn’t financially burden participants.
  • Granting the New Jersey Department of Human Services (NJDOH) the ability to launch the SNAP home delivery pilot in Newark immediately for those facing transportation barriers and providing funding to cover delivery fees.
  • Allowing SNAP benefits to be used for prepared foods to avoid potential lead exposure from cooking.
  • Providing NJDOH with emergency funding to expand access to their educational services by extending their hours to accommodate participants outside of workday hours.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the head of USDA, the lawmakers wrote:

“We believe that further action can be taken to protect vulnerable residents of Newark. We ask that USDA implement a temporary, targeted increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. In doing so, participants with known or suspected lead service lines would be able to purchase bottled water without sacrificing current SNAP funding allocations needed for food purchases.”

“Given the need to limit at risk populations’ potential exposure to lead in filtered water, we respectfully request your assistance with the aforementioned safeguards for the residents of Newark.”

Earlier this week, Sen. Menendez joined Sen. Cory Booker and Congressmen Albio Sires (N.J.-08) and Donald Payne, Jr. (N.J.-10) in calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assist state and local efforts in delivering safe drinking water to Newark residents following sampling results from two of three homes that concluded lead levels exceeded the drinking water standard.

Each year, Sen. Menendez fights for robust funding for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides low cost financing for a wide range of water infrastructure development projects in New Jersey and across the country. The SRFs have been a focal point in efforts to address the lead crisis in drinking water across the country. In FY19, the two SRFs were appropriated a nearly a combined $3 billion.

Sen. Menendez also supports the WIFIA water infrastructure credit assistance program. In FY19, the program was funded at $7.3 billion, a $600 million increase from the previous year.

The FY19 appropriations bill provided $25 million for lead contamination testing at schools and child care centers, an increase of $5 million from the year before. The senator has continuously been supportive of grant programs targeted at lead contamination.

Sen. Menendez has also ensured drinking water safety in the Water Resources Development Act, which is reauthorized every other year. The WRDA bill signed into law last fall authorized funding for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. The WRDA bill also expands the lead in schools testing program to provide schools with additional assistance to address lead contamination, including the replacement of drinking water fountains.

In response to the Flint water crisis, Sen. Menendez introduced the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Investment Act in 2016, which would stimulate billions of dollars in private-sector investment to fund much-needed, large-scale repairs and upgrades to our water systems. The bill modifies the federal tax code to remove caps on the issuances of government private activity bonds (PABs) for water and wastewater projects. Currently, annual volume cap exemptions exist for PAB financing of airports, seaports and certain intercity rail projects.

This past May, Sen. Menendez introduced the Lead-Safe Housing for Kids Act. The bill would ensure that families and children living in federally assisted housing are protected from the devastating consequences of lead poisoning by adopting primary prevention measures to protect children in low-income housing. The senator first introduced this bill in 2016 at a press conference held at a public housing complex in Jersey City.

The full letter can be found below.

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write in regard to the recent finding of high levels of lead in samples of filtered drinking water in Newark, New Jersey. We have been working with the City of Newark and State of New Jersey to identify ways to ensure the safety of Newark’s residents and address the special needs of families and children. In order to better serve the immediate needs of this community, we urge the USDA to provide additional assistance in those efforts.

Infants who consume mostly powder formula that requires mixing are particularly vulnerable to exposure to lead in filtered water. As such, we are concerned that participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC) may not have sufficient access to “Ready to Feed” formula in order to limit the potential for exposure through powder formula. Currently, the State of New Jersey has begun making “Ready to Feed” formula available to Newark residents at WIC clinics. In order to reach more WIC participants, we ask that USDA both ensure that premixed formula be made available at all WIC retailers in Newark, and increase awareness of the availability of this option to WIC mothers. For WIC mothers who have already purchased powder formula, we request that USDA also offer the option to return powder formula in exchange for “Ready to Feed” formula. To supplement any increased costs, we urge USDA to allow for a temporary, targeted increase in WIC benefits so that the need for purchasing “Ready to Feed” formula does not financially burden participants.

Along with the protections outlined above, we believe that further action can be taken to protect vulnerable residents of Newark. In the event of a decrease in the State’s bottled water supply, we ask that USDA implement a temporary, targeted increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. In doing so, participants with known or suspected lead service lines would be able to purchase bottled water without sacrificing current SNAP funding allocations needed for food purchases.  

In order to further mitigate the potential impacts of lead exposure on Newark residents, we request your support for additional nutritional assistance. This includes making additional SNAP funding available to support nutrition needs as identified by the New Jersey Department of Human Services (NJDOH). To ensure access to nutritious foods to all families regardless of transportation or physical limitations, we ask that NJDOH be allowed to not only launch the SNAP home delivery pilot in Newark immediately, but be provided with additional funding to support delivery fee costs. Moreover, we urge USDA to allow SNAP recipients to use current funding allocations for prepared foods to mitigate any challenges with cooking that these families currently face. Lastly, we request emergency funding be granted to NJDOH to provide extended hours and expanded access to accommodate more participants in need of assistance who are unable to attend during the standard workday hours.

Given the need to limit at risk populations’ potential exposure to lead in filtered water, we respectfully request your assistance with the aforementioned safeguards for the residents of Newark. We stand ready to assist in those efforts and any efforts to protect the City and its residents from further unnecessary exposure. We appreciate your immediate consideration of this request.