The US Department of Agriculture will continue providing food stamps to millions of Americans through February, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Tuesday.
The agency initially guaranteed funding for the program, which serves more than 38 million people, only until the end of January if the partial government shutdown isn't resolved sooner.
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The department says it is now using a provision allowing it to make obligated payments within 30 days of a government funding lapse, and is working with states to issue February's food stamp benefits -- which are expected to total $4.8 billion -- by January 20.
The shutdown began after funding ran out December 21.
This move does not draw down on the $3 billion the agency has in reserve for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as food stamps are formally known.
Perdue told reporters he hopes the announcement will relieve the confusion and anxiety over benefits running out after this month.
As for March, he said there is ample time for Congress to send President Donald Trump a spending bill that he can sign, noting that Trump has been clear he expects to see funding for border security.
The agency will look at all available options for providing assistance if the shutdown has not been resolved in time for March payments, said Brandon Lipps, an acting deputy undersecretary at the agency.
This is not the first time the department has issued benefits early, though previous instances have involved natural disasters, such as hurricanes.
Other federal food assistance programs that support tens of millions of low-income Americans will also continue at least through February, said Lipps.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, and the department's food distribution programs are funded through next month. The child nutrition programs, which include school breakfasts and lunches and after-school meals, are set through March, Lipps said.