President Trump proclaimed last week National School Lunch Week.

Wednesday of that week was World Food Day, established in honor the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

What timing for the Trump administration to release, on the eve of World Food Day, an analysis of proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture regulatory action that would result in almost 1 million low-income children losing automatic eligibility for free school meals.

The proposal would affect children certified for free meals because their families get food stamps, bureaucratically known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

About 3.1 million people would lose food stamps under an administration plan that would affect eligibility. The administration’s analysis says “potentially as many as 982,000 children would no longer be directly certified for free school meals based on SNAP participation.”

 About 13.4 million children were automatically certified for free school meals through SNAP in the 2016-2017 school year, according to the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), using USDA data. It is a nonprofit that works to eliminate poverty-related hunger.

Speaking of timing, the department’s Food and Nutrition Service allowed only until Nov. 1 for public comment on the analysis that could affect the health and nutrition of so many. Agencies can change the way programs operate through an administrative or regulatory process that does not require congressional approval.

“Shockingly, the department failed to disclose this analysis when it originally published its proposal despite being required to do so” in July, said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), chairwoman of the House Education and Labor civil rights and human services subcommittee. The two-week comment period, which began Friday, “is woefully insufficient in light of how many people will be affected by this rule.”

The administration wants to change options that allow states to offer SNAP benefits to an expanded group of low-income recipients.

“Children lose twice under the SNAP rules change,” FRAC experts Crystal FitzSimons and Ellen Vollinger said in an email to the Federal Insider. “They lose SNAP food benefits at home and lose free breakfasts and lunches at school.”

The new estimates are far greater than the 400,000 households that would lose food stamps and the 265,000 children who would lose free school meals under an earlier and similar, but not identical, proposal that Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the House Agriculture nutrition subcommittee, cited in June using Congressional Budget Office data. 

“I take hunger very, very seriously,” she told Brandon Lipps, a USDA deputy undersecretary, at an Education and Labor subcommittee hearing last week. “I represent one of the poorest districts in the United States. Half of the children in the city of Cleveland are living in poverty, according to U.S. Census data. These kids often live in SNAP households and rely on the free nutritious meals provided by their local schools to succeed in their classrooms.”

Lipps said the administration wants to eliminate “egregious program abuses” that “leave a dark cloud over this important program, risking future support and reflecting negatively on participants who need access to the programs.” The analysis was provided as soon as it was ready, he said, and 14 days “is sufficient time for the public to comment” on the four-page document.

Of the 982,000 children, “55 percent would no longer be income eligible for free school meals,” though most of those would be eligible for reduced-price meals, according to the USDA’s analysis.

About 45 percent would be able to receive free meals through other programs but not automatically, as is now the case. 

With automatic or “direct certification” gone, families seeking free or discounted meals would have to apply for a service that now happens without any action on their part. 

About 2,000 schools now provide free meals to all their students, which simplifies the program, reduces paperwork and results in, Bonamici said, “the elimination of stigma among students.” 

In response, Rep. James Comer (Ky.), the top Republican on the panel, insisted that “all eligible children will continue to receive school meals. Let me repeat that: All eligible schoolchildren will continue to receive meals.”

His comment did not note the elimination of automatic free meals.

“I believe the rule will strengthen integrity in the SNAP program by closing an unintended loophole that has allowed some states to extend food stamp eligibility to millions of people who did not qualify while taking away resources meant for the truly needy,” he said.

But as a result of the Trump plan, “These schools will be forced to go through the burdensome process of asking low-income families to fill out individual applications for free or reduced-price school meals,” Bonamici said.

“Inevitably, if this rule is implemented, many more low-income students who are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals will not receive the food assistance they desperately need. That is nothing short of a preventable tragedy.”

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