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Trump Official Defends Plan Affecting School Meals to Skeptical Democrats

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 16, 2019 4 min read
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House Democrats and an official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture clashed Wednesday over a Trump administration proposal that could affect hundreds of thousands of students’ automatic enrollment in free school meals programs.

The plan would change eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food assistance to families in need. It does not directly address the National School Lunch Program or the School Breakfast Program. But if the rule is finalized and causes families to lose SNAP eligibility, this could start a chain reaction causing children who are automatically enrolled in school meal programs as a result of their SNAP participation to lose access to those meals.

“That is nothing short of a preventable tragedy,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., the chairwoman of the House education subcommittee that hosted a hearing on the matter.

The rule change would also make it harder for families participating in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to automatically enroll in SNAP.

Brandon Lipps, a deputy under secretary at the Agriculture Department, responded that his agency was working to ensure that those who were still eligible for school meals would apply for and receive them; he called the program providing school meals a “wonderful program.” However, he stressed that states were not holding up their end of the bargain to ensure that only those who qualified for the program and truly in need would benefit. And he cited instances in which wealthy individuals cheated the SNAP program.

“We all agree that those who can provide for themselves should,” Lipps said.

Democrats formally registered their opposition to these SNAP changes last month. A new federal analysis released this week states that “potentially as many as 982,000 children would no longer be directly certified for free school meals based on SNAP participation.”

However, of those children, 445,000 would still be eligible for free school meals based on their household income, while 497,000 would remain eligible for reduced-price meals. The remaining 40,000 would not be eligible for either; Lipps said that number represented a tenth of 1 percent of children receiving school meal benefits.

In other words, the vast majority wouldn’t technically be barred altogether from accessing free and reduced-price meals.

Although the changes would ultimately be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we asked the Education Department if they had any comment; we’ll update this post if we hear back.

So why does it matter that children are “directly certified” for free school meals? Here’s what Evie Blad of Politics K-12 wrote about this issue back in July:

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.

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

Groups that combat child hunger have sounded the alarm, saying the Trump administration’s plan would impose an additional bureaucratic burden on families and negatively affect students’ health and development. Their concern is that without the streamlined process under current SNAP rules, many more students could go without the free and reduced-price meals. (The analysis acknowledges that some families might not apply for those meals if the rule goes into effect; over five years, it estimates that there could be $270 million in reduced costs for the federal lunch and breakfast programs.)

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has previously said the changes would make it “so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.” Lipps said the income-eligibility thresholds for receiving free and reduced-price meals would not change due to the proposal.

Democrats on the subcommittee didn’t buy Lipps’ defense, and said the administration didn’t disclose the plan’s full impact in its initial analysis.

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, said the administration was using a few anecdotes to “punish hungry kids.” Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., responded to Lipps’ point about self-reliance by saying “children can’t provide for themselves” and that she had plenty of stories about hungry children suffering at schools. (Hayes was named National Teacher of the Year in 2016). And Rep. David Trone, D-Md., said the plan would create more paperwork for schools, leaving them less time for more important things.

But Republicans defended the administration. Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the top Republican on the subcommittee, said Democrats were simply misrepresenting what the Trump proposal means through their false description of it.

“It certainly advances the Democrats’ narratives. But it is far from the truth,” Comer said. “All eligible children will continue to receive meals.”

Most of the public comments submitted to the federal government about the proposed rule have criticized it.

Photo: Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue eats lunch with elementary school students. (USDA File Photo)

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