With a Trump administration proposal aiming to add restrictions to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), concerns are rising that students in low-income families could have a harder time receiving free meals at school.
But school nutrition experts say, if approved, the effects of the proposal on schools offering free meals to all students through the National School Lunch Program’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) would not be immediate.
“It would take some time,” said Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs for the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), an advocacy organization.
Because the CEP designation is good for four years, those who just entered the program would have a few years before having to reapply.
The Trump administration aims to eliminate a provision through which states can automatically make families eligible for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, if they receive minimal assistance through the federal welfare program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).
“The proposed rule would fix a loophole that has expanded SNAP recipients in some states to include people who receive assistance when they clearly don’t need it,” according to a press release from the USDA.
Under the proposal, a family would have to receive at least $50 a month in TANF cash or non-cash benefits for at least six months in order to be eligible for SNAP. Non-cash benefits would be limited to subsidized employment, work support or child care. The public has until Sept. 23 to submit comments.
As part of CEP, schools and districts can offer free meals if at least 40% of their students live in families who participate in SNAP or receive other public assistance. Most schools only participate if that percentage of students reaches much higher because they have to make up the difference between what they receive for reimbursable meals and the cost of meals for students who are not eligible.
Introduced in 2014, participation in CEP continues to grow. In the 2018-19 school year, 28,542 schools and 4,633 school districts, serving nearly 13.6 million children, participated in the program. Almost 65% of the schools that can participate did, according to FRAC, and growth has been the largest in California, Texas, New York, Michigan and Florida.
Nutrition and economic impact
The proposed rule would also affect students’ eligibility for free or reduced-price meals even if they don’t attend a school participating in the CEP program.
Currently, students are automatically eligible for subsidized meals if they live in a household that receives SNAP. The proposal would affect those who qualify for SNAP through “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which extends benefits to other low-income families, beyond those who only qualify for TANF.
Students who would be affected “come from working poor families and families with grandparents,” FitzSimons and Ellen Vollinger, the legal/food stamp director for FRAC, wrote in a blog post earlier this month. “They come from families who are struggling to put food on the table” but don’t meet strict income requirements.
Last week, 70 mayors across the country submitted a letter to the Food and Nutrition Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), saying the proposed rule would “put children’s health and development at risk by removing their access to healthy school meals; and harm our economy by reducing the amount of SNAP dollars available to spur regional and local economic activity.”
Education leaders have also spoken out against the proposed rule.
“Research has shown that access to free and reduced-price school meals allows low-income students to stay engaged and learn,” Debra Duardo, superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said in a statement. “Removing this access would have a detrimental impact on student academic performance and success in school.”
The proposal also follows other efforts by the administration to tighten eligibility for public benefits. In May and June, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget took public comments on a plan to change how the federal poverty line is calculated.
The plan involves using what is known as the “chained” or “chain-linked” Consumer Price Index (CPI) instead of the traditional CPI to set poverty thresholds. The change would mean that over time, low-income families who receive benefits such as SNAP would lose eligibility. As with the adjustment to SNAP currently being considered, using chained CPI would affect schools’ ability to participate in CEP.
FitzSimons added she expects there could be legal challenges to the proposed USDA rule. In addition, the agency still has to review all of the more than 38,000 comments it has received.
"Part of the hope is that there will be enough diverse stakeholders that weigh in opposing the proposed rule that they would pull it," she said.