180906 Free and Reduced Lunches 7

Students go through the cold food line in the cafeteria at Wilson School. [FILE/TIMESDAILY]

MONTGOMERY — Proposed changes to tighten eligibility for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would mean nearly one million children will no longer automatically qualify for free meals at schools, prompting concern from advocates in Alabama.

Many of those children will still qualify for free lunch, or may have to pay a reduced cost, but their families will have to apply for the financial assistance.

“We know that kids are going to fall through the cracks because of the paperwork involved,” said Carol Gundlach, a policy analyst for Alabama Arise.

The Trump administration earlier this year announced a proposal to end some automatic qualifications for SNAP, commonly referred to as food stamps. Federal officials said the change would end automatic eligibility for those who were already receiving federal and state assistance.

“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 July.

Nationally, that change would affect about 3 million people.

About 16,000 Alabama children will no longer be eligible for SNAP, Gundlach said.

Further, not having SNAP means those school-age children won’t automatically qualify for free lunches at school, something the USDA clarified this month.

The USDA estimates as many as 982,000 children would no longer be directly certified for free school meals based on SNAP participation. A spokesman for the Alabama State Department of Education said it doesn’t know how many students might be impacted by the proposal.

Of the total number of impacted children nationwide, about 45% would be income eligible for free meals, and about 51% would be income eligible for reduced price meals, according to the USDA. About 40,000 children would have to pay full-price for meals.

The USDA said its proposal could cut $90 million a year from the cost of its school lunch and breakfast programs, which last year was more than $18 billion.

Free lunches are available to children in households with incomes at or below 130% of poverty. Reduced-price lunches are available to those with incomes between 130% and 185% of poverty.

Besides impacting individual students, the proposal could affect schools that currently offer free meals to all students under the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision. There are 460 such schools in the state, according to the Alabama State Department of Education. The Community Eligibility Provision allows schools to give free meals to all students if 40% of them receive other federal assistance, including SNAP or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. According to the USDA, the program eliminates high-poverty schools’ burden of determining which students qualify for meals. The program became available nationwide in 2014.

If fewer students qualify for free meals through SNAP eligibility, some of those 460 schools could longer meet the 40% mark and be forced to stop free meals to all.

Roanoke City Schools has had free meals for all students for three years and Superintendent Chuck Marcum attributes it to the system’s recent success, including an 87 on the recent state report card.

“I can’’t overstate the importance of the program and what it’s doing for our students,” Marcum said about community eligibility.

He said the biggest impact may be at the high school, where free breakfast used to be only for students who turned in income documentation.

“I couldn’t get them in high school to turn in the forms because they didn’t want other kids to know they were free,” the former high school principal said. “Now, everyone is free and we’ve removed that stigma.”

The USDA is taking public comments on the SNAP rule change through today at https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=FNS-2018-0037.

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