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Thousands of Students Could Lose Free School Meals if SNAP Changes

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A Trump administration plan to tighten eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could have a secondary effect: hundreds of thousands of children losing automatic eligibility for free school lunches, child hunger groups warn. 

The proposal, announced Tuesday, would curb broad-based categorical eligibility, an provision that allows states to streamline the application process SNAP, commonly known as food stamps, for families who participate in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

What does SNAP have to do with schools?

Children in families who participate in SNAP are "directly certified" for participation in federally subsidized free school meal programs without filling out a separate application, a move that cuts red tape that can prevent participation, those groups say.

In addition, schools where large number of students are directly certified in free meal programs, through participation in SNAP or other federal anti-poverty programs, may provide universal free meals to all students through a federal provision called community eligibility.

Tightening up SNAP qualifications could cause about 265,000 students to lose eligibility for free meals, said Lisa Davis, the senior vice president of Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry Campaign, in testimony before the House agriculture committee's subcommittee on nutrition in June. 

"While some families may remain eligible for reduced-price meals, even the low cost of reduced-price meals can be a significant burden on low-income families, especially those with multiple school-aged children," Davis said. "This has long-term consequences for children. Consistent access to nutrition is linked to cognitive and physical development, test scores, and long-term health and education outcomes."

And more students could lose access to free meals if those SNAP changes drop their schools below the threshold for community eligibility.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sony Perdue said Tuesday that the proposed SNAP eligibility changes are necessary to prevent "abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it."

Some states apply the SNAP flexibility so broadly that some families qualify even though they only "nominally" participate in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program he said.

The Agriculture Department will accept public comments on the proposed rule, called revision of categorical eligibility in the SNAP, for 60 days.

Concern About Hungry Students

The proposed SNAP changes come as child hunger and school lunches have made headlines and sparked viral stories about "lunch shaming," the practice of denying students hot school meals if they are overdrawn on their accounts. Most recently, a Pennsyvlania district threatened parents that their children may be placed in foster care if they don't settle their meal debts.

Such stories have even caught the eye of presidential candidates, some of whom have proposed making all school meals free. (You can read more about "lunch shaming" in this post.) Anti-poverty groups see easier enrollment in free school lunches, through options like direct certification and community eligibility, as key to addressing this issue.

Photo: Students pick up their lunch at Barre Town Elementary School in Barre Town, Vt. --Toby Talbot/AP-File
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