Last week, in a letter supported by a dubious substantiation, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue announced a proposed change to a rule that aims, says the letter, to fix a loophole that currently gives benefits “to people who receive assistance when they clearly don’t need it.”
But, closing that loophole may affect access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, by eliminating school lunches to 500,000 children since SNAP eligibility is used to calculate eligibility for free and reduced school meals.
The SNAP program, formerly called food stamps, covers 38 million Americans.
The USDA Food and Nutrition Service defines SNAP as a program that provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency.
The proposed change will end allowing recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, a more comprehensive benefit program, to automatically be income-eligible for SNAP having been screened through TANF.
The Food and Nutrition Service says that 3 million SNAP participants, about 8 percent of the total, may be receiving SNAP without adequate screening through TANF, perhaps by only receiving a brochure.
Oddly, the USDA letter illustrates the importance of fixing what it calls an “egregious” loophole by describing a story in which “a millionaire living in Minnesota successfully enrolled in the program simply to highlight the waste of taxpayer money.”
Montgomery County Social Services agents said it was unlikely a millionaire could receive benefits.
While the letter presents a dubious scenario to support the motive for the rule change, the USDA has so far been unable to produce the millionaire or the eligibility agent to corroborate the event.
This week, Congressman Bobby Scott (VA-3) representative of Virginia’s third district sent a reply to Secretary Purdue voicing concern that, in a phone briefing with USDA Food and Nutrition Service staff estimated that the proposed rule will result in more than 500,000 children losing their automatic eligibility for free school meals.
Scott contends that, when the rule was published for public comment in the Federal Register, there was no mention of the impact on free school meal eligibility those 500,000 school kids.
A USDA spokesperson reached by email said, “The proposed rule does not in any way modify the school meals eligibility standards Congress has provided in statute. All children who qualify for school meals under the standards Congress provided would continue to receive free or reduced price meals based on those respective standards.”
Without larger context, the spokesperson concluded, “Instead, this rule ensures SNAP benefits go to those who meet the eligibility criteria as outlined by Congress, not millionaires or those who simply received a referral to a non-working 800 number.”
Scott recommends that Revision of Categorical Eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program should be re-opened for public comment containing information referencing possible impact to school lunches at www.regulations.gov
While the proposed rule has not been put into effect, some school administrators and nutrition directors are worried.
“Breakfast costs 30 cents and lunch costs 70 cents. For some families, coming up with that every day, just isn’t possible.” Connie Wood, nutrition director for Radford schools where nearly 50% of students are currently eligible for free or reduced meals.
The USDA administers 15 nutrition assistance programs that it says leverages “American’s agricultural abundance to ensure children and low-income individuals and families have nutritious food to eat.”