Kids Could Lose Food Stamps, School Meals Under Proposed Federal Change

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A Trump administration proposal to change how states determine who qualifies for food stamps could lead to thousands of California children going hungry at home and at school, analysts say.

In July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it wants to eliminate the policy called broad-based categorical eligibility, which allows states to enroll households in the national food stamp program—called CalFresh in California—even if their income slightly exceeds federal eligibility standards.

The policy is a lifeline for low-income families in high-cost-of-living states, like California, where housing, child care and medical expenses can eat up a large portion of people’s earnings.

“It’s a really important policy for California,” said Jared Call, who works at California Food Policy Advocates, a public policy and advocacy group. “The main (household expense) here in California is rent. It’s just much higher than the federal benefit formula accounts for.”

Almost 200,000 households in California would lose food stamps if the rule gets eliminated, according to an analysis by the firm Mathematica, funded through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Around 74,000 of those households include children, the analysis found. The average food stamp benefit per household in the state is $171 a month.

Kids in families affected by the change would likely also lose access to free and reduced-price school meals. That’s because children in California whose families receive food stamps are automatically enrolled in the National School Lunch Program. In turn, schools that receive extra state funding based on the number of students in the free lunch program could lose money if fewer students are enrolled.

“For families with kids it’s really a triple whammy. Food is being taken off their table and out of their fridge, and their purchasing power is being decreased,” Call said. “Second, the kids could lose access to their free school meals, and then the school itself that the kid is attending is going to face increased budgetary pressure.”

As it stands, California households can qualify for food stamps if they have incomes of up to 200 percent of the federal poverty limit, or about $51,500 for a family of four. Without the expanded eligibility rule, only households with incomes of up to 130 percent of the poverty line would qualify for food stamps. That’s $33,500 for a family of four.

The Trump administration calls the policy a “loophole” that allows people in some states to qualify for food stamp benefits even though they may not need them. Ending the policy would save taxpayer money and ensure the same eligibility rules apply no matter where someone lives, the administration said.

“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines. Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “The American people expect their government to be fair, efficient and to have integrity—just as they do in their own homes, businesses and communities. That is why we are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety-net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.”

But Kathy Saile, California state director for the organization No Kid Hungry, said the proposed rule change threatens to undo nationwide progress in reducing food insecurity. She said the modest amount some families receive in food assistance each month from CalFresh helps them stay afloat financially and weather minor emergencies. It also has long-term benefits for children’s health and wellbeing, research shows. Likewise, free school lunches help ensure low-income kids get adequate nutrition and can focus in the classroom, Saile added.

“This is a policy that has been proven to be successful and have positive outcomes,” she said. “We’re hoping the administration will hear from lots of people around the nation opposing this (change).”

So far, more than 8,000 people have submitted comments on the proposal through the Federal Register’s web page. The comment period ends Monday.

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