WASHINGTON — Thousands of public schools across the country could be automatically disqualified from a federal free breakfast and lunch program as a result of new policy proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agency insiders and policy experts told VICE News.
A new rule proposed last month by the department would force applicants for food stamps to disclose all the benefits they receive from both the federal and state government. If the sum of their income and assets exceeds 130% of the poverty line — just under $33,000 annually for a family of four — applicants will no longer automatically qualify for food assistance.
It will also affect schools in the country’s poorest neighborhoods, which offer free and low-cost breakfast and lunch to every student. Schools where at least 40% of students’ families receive food assistance or other federal welfare benefits can opt to automatically provide all students with free breakfast and lunch as part of the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision, which served 9.7 million children nationwide at the end of the 2017 school year.
But once that number dips below the 40% threshold, federal funds for free breakfast and lunch disappear.
“It impacts all the kids in that school,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of the Food Research & Action Center’s child nutrition programs. “[Families] are going to be impacted with less food at home for everybody, and their kids are going to come to school and not be eligible for free school meals anymore.”
The USDA estimated that 500,000 children will lose automatic eligibility for free meals at school as a result of the change, but that does not included entire schools that could be removed from the Community Eligibility Provision.
“It impacts all the kids in that school.”
Of the nearly 29,000 schools across the country that participate in the program, 22 percent are very close to the cutoff threshold, with 40% to 49% of students on public assistance, the Food Research & Action Center’s research shows.
A few families bumped off food stamps literally means an entire school can become ineligible. It’s these schools, right on the cusp of qualifying for the Community Eligibility Provision, that will likely see their eligibility rates drop first, FitzSimons said.
Federal agencies are required by law to complete a regulatory impact analysis for proposed rule changes, which tell the public exactly how their proposed rule changes will affect the targeted population. The USDA’s regulatory impact analysis does not address how its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP proposal will affect participation in the Community Eligibility Provision.
But the USDA’s own data shows where the program is popular: Many participating schools are located in conservative states with high levels of poverty, in large school districts that have more than 20,000 enrolled students. There are 984 participating schools in Kentucky, for example, which was one of the earliest states to adopt it. More than 1,000 schools in Louisiana opted in.
Larger states also rely on the program. In Texas, over 2,700 schools opted into the program, and over 3,500 schools in New York participate.
Critics of the new policy say the USDA is vastly underestimating the number of children that could be affected by this rule as a result of having their schools disqualified from free breakfast and lunch.
In a July letter sent by Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chair of the House Education & Labor Committee, to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, Scott asked Perdue to clarify how his staff arrived at the 500,000 figure, but has not yet received an answer. A committee aide tells VICE News that the committee staff is highly skeptical of USDA’s estimate.
“The proposed rule does not in any way modify the school meals eligibility standards Congress has provided in statute,” the USDA told VICE News in a statement. “All children who qualify for school meals under the standards Congress provided would continue to receive free or reduced price meals based on those respective standards.”
The department also argues that the SNAP program is being abused. “This rule ensures SNAP benefits go to those who meet the eligibility criteria as outlined by Congress, not millionaires or those who simply received a referral to a non-working 800 number,” the statement continued.
Cover: In this Wednesday, July 10, 2019 photo, Avery Morgan, left, 6, and Hadley Kelly, 6, both students at Lone Oak Elementary go through the lunch line in the school's cafeteria in Paducah, Ky. During the summer months, Paducah and McCracken County school districts are able to feed their students and others who are food-insufficient with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Summer Food Service Program. (Ellen O'Nan/The Paducah Sun via AP)