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Tuesday, November 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Education

Spokane students, districts brace for impact of planned federal tightening of food stamp rules

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 18, 2019

Second-grader William Bornstein-Stewart, right, waits while Elaine Zickler, left, prepares a dish of corn chips with taco meat and cheese sauce in the school lunch line Friday, Oct. 18, 2019 at Grant Elementary. A proposed change in food stamp eligibility requirements may affect school lunch eligibility as well. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Second-grader William Bornstein-Stewart, right, waits while Elaine Zickler, left, prepares a dish of corn chips with taco meat and cheese sauce in the school lunch line Friday, Oct. 18, 2019 at Grant Elementary. A proposed change in food stamp eligibility requirements may affect school lunch eligibility as well. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Thousands of schoolchildren in Spokane County could be affected by a Trump administration proposal to tighten eligibility requirements for food stamps.

The change, proposed last summer, would disqualify about 3 million people who get food stamps because they have qualified for other forms of government aid, even though they may have savings or other assets.

“If it’s approved, it will impact our students,” said Kim Elkins, director of nutrition services at the Mead school district, where about 1,100 students will be directly affected.

It also may impact the bottom line at every school district.

“School lunch debt will rise because we still feed kids when they’re hungry,” Elkins predicted.

Spokane Public Schools and Central Valley School District expect several thousand children to be affected. However, in nearly all cases, they would pay far less than full price for lunches, which average $2.75 per day in the county.

“We are in the early stages of working with the state to analyze the potential impact,” said Brian Coddington, director of communications and public relations at Spokane Public Schools.

Under the proposal, about one million children nationwide would be cut from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, according to an analysis released earlier this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It’s unclear when the proposal would take effect.

The proposal was made in July when the USDA estimated that about half a million schoolchildren would be affected.

That number was doubled in this week’s analysis.

Of those 1 million children, about half would no longer be directly certified for free school meals based on their family’s participation in SNAP.

They would continue to be eligible to receive free meals because they come from families with annual household incomes of no more than 130% of the federal poverty level, or $33,475 for a four-person family in 2019.

However, they would need to fill out paperwork to receive the free meals.

Another 497,000 kids would only be eligible for reduced-price meals since they come from households with annual income of between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level, or no more than roughly $47,650.

Those meals will cost a maximum of 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.

Another 40,000 students from higher-income families would pay full price. Some of them live in low-income areas that come under the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP. Schools in those areas served breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collection paperwork.

Eight elementary schools in Spokane – Bemiss, Grant, Holmes, Logan, Regal, Stevens, Whitman and Pratt – are part of the CEP program.

Schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed only for the percentage of students who are individually eligible for free meals based on their participation in programs such as SNAP and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, orTANF.

However, Elkins said that some of that shortfall is recouped through the economy of scale of feeding all students.

Republicans have long argued that this expanded eligibility option is a “loophole” that permits those with higher incomes and assets to get public assistance.

Current regulations were described as such by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who noted that some states have allowed participants receiving minimal TANF benefits to automatically qualify for SNAP despite higher income levels.

“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines. Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint,” Perdue said in July, when the proposal was first raised.

“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,” Perdue said.

Consumer advocates, however, say that option helps low-income working Americans get the help they need.

“The internal analysis released by the Department of Agriculture shows that the impact of its proposed rule would be even worse than we had feared,” Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, said Wednesday ahead of a hearing on the issue.

“Even for those who remain eligible, forcing low-income families to navigate the burdensome paperwork will inevitably lead to eligible children losing access to a critical source of daily nutrition,” Scott said.

Elkins fears that may happen in Spokane.

“A lot of families who are on free meals are not used to filing out these forms, they’ve struggled with paperwork,” Elkins said.

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