Legislators examine potential impact on free school meals of USDA’s proposed SNAP policy changes

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/Sal73it
Source: Getty/Sal73it

Related tags SNAP school lunch Usda

At a House Education and Labor subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, legislators will consider the extent to which the US Department of Agriculture’s proposed policy changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would unnecessarily jeopardize children’s access to school lunch and hinder their ability to thrive academically.

In July, USDA proposed eliminating state broad-based categorical eligibility policies that allow beneficiaries of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)-funded noncash benefits to automatically qualify for SNAP. The department argued that the change would “streamline program administration”​ while also restoring the public’s confidence that SNAP benefits “are being provided to eligible households,”​ according to a notice in the Federal Register​.

However, USDA’s internal analysis along with independent assessments suggest the opposite is true and that the change “would cause serious harm to millions of low-income families who would have an even harder time making ends meet and putting food on the table,”​ Robert Wood Johnson Foundation President and CEO Richard Besser argued in comments ​submitted Sept. 19.

For support, he pointed to USDA’s regulatory impact analysis that the proposed change would cost approximately 9% of currently-participating SNAP households to lose eligibility for the program and as a result the rule “may also impact food insecurity and savings rates of low-income Americans.”

'The harm caused by this proposal would be significant'

In addition, Besser said, the change would increase the administrative burden associated with the application process to the tune of approximately $5m annually. He also notes that USDA estimates additional $1.16bn in administrative costs to state agencies.

“The department’s conclusions are unmistakable: the harm caused by this proposal – reductions in nutrition assistance benefits, potential increases in poverty and food insecurity rates; and increased administrative burdens on applicants as well as federal and state agencies – would be significant, with no positive impacts to limit or offset the damage,”​ he wrote.

Among those potentially negatively impacted by the change, should it go into effect, are approximately 500,000 school-age children who would lose SNAP benefits and by extension their direct certification for free school meals, Besser noted.

This could trigger long-term consequences for these children whose health and academic performance likely would suffer should they go hungry, he argued.

Going to school hungry can make it hard to learn

For example, children who are food insecure are more likely to suffer higher rates of asthma, mental health problems and behavior issues, according to a research brief from the Urban Institute​, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, published in September. It also pointed to research  showing that going to school hungry can make it hard to learn and participation in SNAP can improve math and reading test scores among young children.

Should the proposal go into effect, schools also would suffer a higher administrative burden as they would need to process separate applications for children who qualify for free or reduced lunches, according to the research brief.

At the hearing later this week, the deputy undersecretary of the Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at USDA is slated to testify on these and other related concerns at 2 pm, according to Politico.

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