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How a proposed rule change could affect free lunch for some kids in need

For years, the Trump administration has prioritized efforts to scale back food stamp benefits to combat alleged fraud and abuse, despite a “historic high” in pay accuracy, according to the federal government’s own assessment. But after tremendous public pushback, the Trump administration reopened the comment period for a proposed rule that could alter categorical eligibility for food stamp benefits and cut off aid for an estimated 3 million Americans.

The revised comment period ends Nov. 1, after which federal officials will review the public’s input before issuing a final rule. If these potential cuts go into effect, as many as 1 million children could lose access to free or reduced price school lunch as a result.

An estimated 40 million Americans, including 12.5 million children, have trouble paying for enough nutritious food to eat. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the nation’s largest federal food insecurity program and feeds more than 37 million people in the U.S. — not all of whom are citizens. Enrollees receive a monthly average benefit of $127, or $1.39 per meal, according to calculations from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Two-thirds of SNAP recipients are children, people who are elderly and those who live with disabilities, said Colleen Heflin, senior research associate at Syracuse University’s Center for Policy Research. According to a recent county-level analysis from the Urban Institute, higher concentrations of food insecurity are found across southern and western states.

The PBS NewsHour asked policy experts about the Trump administration’s aim in proposing this change, and the consequences of these actions on schoolchildren’s access to food.

How the Trump administration wants to tighten limits on SNAP

Nationwide, 39 states and the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands use “broad-based categorical eligibility” to offer SNAP benefits to residents. That means states and territories have discretion to offer food stamps to people even if their household income or asset value surpasses congressionally defined limits. For example, a low-income family may earn money but not enough to cover high rent or child care costs. Some states can take those expenses into consideration and decide that household qualifies for food assistance.

The Trump administration says states have become too lax in doling out food stamp benefits, and wants to put an end to that practice.

Instead of using categorical eligibility, a more “principled approach” is necessary to maintain the system’s integrity, said Angela Rachidi, a research fellow in poverty studies for the American Enterprise Institute.

“States shouldn’t be allowed to go around the intent of Congress,” Rachidi said. “If Congress wants to expand income eligibility, they should legislate that.”

Congress did weigh in on these issues in December, said Elaine Waxman, who studies food insecurity as a senior fellow with the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center. That’s when lawmakers rejected similar legislation to Trump’s proposed rule in the farm bill. The rules proposed by the administration, she said, are “the opposite of congressional intent.”

How might these changes affect free and reduced price school lunch?

Established in 1946, the National School Lunch Program served 30.4 million children free or reduced-price meals in 2016. Children qualify to receive these meals if their household earnings amount to or are less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line. They also can receive these meals if they benefit from federal assistance programs, such as SNAP, or if they are homeless, migrants or in the foster care system.

Food policy advocates pushed back on the Trump administration’s proposed rule, saying it would undermine children’s access to food. The criticism was so forceful, the federal government reopened the comment period for this rule change, giving the public a chance to weigh in. The last day to comment is Friday.

If the proposed rule goes into effect, USDA analysis says 982,000 school children could see disruption in their access to free-or-reduced school meals. When it revised its proposal due to pushback, the federal government pointed out that most children would still have access to free-or-reduced school breakfast and lunch under the change. However, the government said an estimated 40,000 children — roughly the size of all public school children enrolled in Lincoln, Nebraska, would lose those meals because they lived in homes that reported too much in income and assets.

This proposal is “not taking benefits away from the most needy families,” Rachidi said, stressing that “there’s a debate to be had about whether those levels of income eligibility are the right level. Allowing states to determine how to give federally funded food benefits, she said, “is not the way to address that.”

Waxman warned that changing one intertwined social policy can send unintended shockwaves through others. Over the years, policymakers during both Republican and Democratic administrations have carved out different paths to open access to SNAP benefits in an effort to reduce hunger with categorical eligibility being used as a way to lower administration paperwork. Shutting down one route to food stamps could expose adults and children in vulnerable households to other consequences, Waxman said.

“It’s really, really important for all these things to come together, and unfortunately they come in pieces,” she said. “It’s hard for us to know what’s happening to the SNAP program if we’re not talking about the ways these things interact.”

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