Dallas County

Many Students Could Lose Free Lunch Under Proposed SNAP Changes

Last week's proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could result in more than 300,000 Texans losing food aid. Of those people, many are children who are eligible automatically for free or reduced school lunch because their families receive food stamps.

Advocates worry that some of those students will lose access to free and reduced breakfast and lunch at school if changes to SNAP go into effect and that students will go hungry as a result.

At the moment, states are allowed to determine SNAP guidelines in accordance with the needs of their populations. But as the Dallas Observer reported last week, the new plan would decrease the maximum income of those who can get help through the program and limit eligibility for the highest earners who currently receive food stamps — the working poor who need some extra help to make ends meet.

“The Trump administration believes people should be working, and so do we,” said Jamie Olson, a policy analyst for Feeding Texas. “So the fact that this proposal is going to hit working families the hardest is just the antithesis of what they want to do.”

Since the new rules would require Texas to calculate eligibility requirements in accordance with national guidelines, instead of the state's current specification, 7.5% of those who currently get help would no longer qualify.

Texas students age 5 to 17 whose families qualify for monthly food assistance programs are directly certified to get free or reduced lunch at school. School-age children made up a little more than a third of the 3,413,110 Texans who qualified to receive SNAP help in June of this year.

If students no longer qualify for free meals at school, they risk going hungry. Even small periods of food insecurity can negatively affect health, learning and concentration, Olson said.

Of the 2,377,051 Texas K-12 students eligible for free meals, more than 50% are approved through the food stamps program, estimated Celia Cole, chief executive officer for Feeding Texas.

“We spend a lot of money making sure kids have access to school, and if we're not making sure they're well-nourished and can focus, we're wasting our money.” — Crystal FitzSimons

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Dallas Independent School District offers all students free breakfast and lunch through a program called the Community Eligibility Provision, but not all schools in Texas qualify for the program or chose to participate.

Enrolling in the program can cut down on administrative costs and paperwork, keeps schools from having to go after unpaid lunch debt and eliminates the stigma around free meals, because they are free to all students, said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center.

But each school must decide if participating in the program is financially viable, FitzSimons said.

Schools that do enroll in the program generally see an increase in participation in free lunch and breakfast programs, which is an easy way to ensure that all students are fed and can concentrate on their class work. Schools also benefit from better food prices and offset administrative costs when they order more meals, she said.

To take advantage of the program, schools must have at least 40% of the student population eligible for free and reduced lunch. At and above that level, schools are reimbursed completely for free meals and partially for the other meals they offer to students. When combined with the expenses saved from administrative costs, schools that qualify can often figure out how to make the program break even or even save them money.

Of the eligible Texas schools, 53.2% of those chose to be a part of the program last year, FitzSimons said. She noted that in Texas the program becomes financially viable for schools with about 60% of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

For example, Fort Worth ISD has 96 schools in the program, for each of which 62% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Of the 23 schools that do not participate, 12 qualify for the program but do not participate and none has more than 50% students in the free and reduced lunch program.

If the federal government's proposed changes to SNAP were to be enacted, not only would fewer students qualify for free and reduced lunch, but some of those who are automatically enrolled in the program would have to apply to be included.

In Fort Worth ISD, the program would most likely be cut down or possibly eliminated and there would be a greater burden on parents and students to show that they qualify for the free and reduced lunch, said district spokesman Clint Bond in an email. He plans to look into the public comment process for the proposed changes.

“Anything that makes it harder to qualify our families for benefits, is not supportive of our students,” he said.

Of the 2,716 schools in Texas that now participate in the program, some would likely decide that the program was no longer financially feasible, and others would have to take on additional costs to keep it going, FitzSimons said.

Many families who make slightly more than the maximum required income to qualify for free and reduced meals struggle to pay for lunch and breakfast for their children. When schools offer free meals to everyone, these families benefit and are the ones who would be hardest hit at schools no longer able to offer free breakfast and lunch, she said.

“We spend a lot of money making sure kids have access to school,” she said, “and if we're not making sure they're well-nourished and can focus, we're wasting our money.”