More than 400,000 kids from low-income households in Washington qualify for free lunch at their schools — about 37% of public school students statewide.
But if a proposal by the Trump administration to tighten income and savings restrictions for families receiving food stamps goes into effect in its current form, it would end access for around 15,600 of those kids, according to an estimate from Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). Around the country, more than half a million kids — many of whom rely on the federal school lunch program for regular meals — would be affected, The Washington Post reported.
Why? Using food stamps is an automatic qualifier for free lunch in many states, including Washington. Those families who would be affected by the proposed rule would no longer be automatically enrolled.
It’s one of a few proposals in the last year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to cut spending on the program that provides food stamps, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). The comment period for this particular rule — expected to disqualify 3 million from SNAP nationwide — ended Nov. 1.
The USDA initially proposed the rule in July, but the timeline for its review was pushed back after House Democrats pushed the agency to provide more information on its impact to school lunch programs. After the agency assesses public feedback, it is expected to issue a final version.
Many families’ incomes will be low enough to still qualify for discounted school meals even without food stamps, and can apply through their schools. But because the income threshold for discounted school meals is stricter than it is for SNAP in Washington, some will not qualify, said Leanne Eko, director of Child Nutrition Services for the state education department.
“I have serious concerns about the negative impacts of these rules for children and youth in Washington state,” state schools chief Chris Reykdal wrote in a letter to the USDA in September.
Families making up to 200% of the federal poverty level, a little more than $50,000 for a family of four, currently qualify for food stamps in Washington state. The maximum income threshold for school lunch program benefits is 185% for discounted lunch and 130% for free lunch.
“It is one more place that we’re adding a barrier for a family on a fixed income,” said Babs Roberts, director of the community services division for DSHS.
It’s unclear how many families automatically enrolled have incomes that fall between the 185% to 200% threshold. DSHS was not able to provide an answer by Friday afternoon. But there could be other ripple effects.
Reykdal also pointed to the impact the rule could have on schools participating in a federal program called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which grants free lunches to all students. Schools qualify for that program in part based on the number of students who receive SNAP benefits.
In an analysis of the rule’s impact, USDA officials said the majority of schools participating in CEP would still be eligible. Researchers at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based moderate-to-left-leaning think tank, estimated about 142,000 students nationwide attend schools that could lose their CEP status. State officials did not have preliminary estimates of how many schools here would be affected, but Roberts said the number is probably not high.