Will Congress deny 280,000 low income children a free school lunch?

by Dana Woldow, 2013-01-23

Last year, when Congress failed to pass a new farm bill, an often-repeated claim was that the version of the bill proposed by the House Agricultural Committee would throw 280,000 children off the free school lunch rolls. Less clear was who exactly these kids would be, why some members of Congress thought it was a good idea to literally take food out of the mouths of low income children, and whether those families could just work around such legislation and still get free school lunch.

Late on New Year's Day, Congress finally passed a hasty "fiscal cliff" bill which also included what food blogger Tom Philpott called a "fast and dirty stop gap farm bill compromise." This unexpected move, which disappointed and outraged many, pushed most farm issues forward until September, averted the so-called "dairy cliff", in which milk prices could have doubled overnight, and postponed discussion of cuts to food stamps (now called SNAP) until later this year. It was the inability of Congress to agree on the extent to which the SNAP budget should be cut that derailed the farm bill in 2012.


Children whose families qualify for SNAP are automatically eligible for free school meals; changes to SNAP eligibility recommended by the House Agriculture Committee last year, if enacted, would have resulted in 280,000 schoolchildren nationwide being removed from the free school lunch program, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

After writing an article about how farm bill cuts affect school meal programs, I was asked a very reasonable question - if Congress changes the rules so that some children lose their automatic enrollment in free school meal programs, why can't their families just fill out the free meal application and qualify the same way some other low income families do? Presumably if their families were receiving SNAP benefits, they are low income, right?

As is so often the case with government programs, it's not that simple.

Presently, children in families qualified for government aid programs like SNAP, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) can be automatically qualified for free school meals by a process called "direct certification" in which they are enrolled directly into the school meal program by the federal or state assistance program, without the family needing to fill out a free school meal application.

According to a July 2012 report from the Congressional Research Service, there are two ways families can qualify for SNAP benefits. The first way is by meeting SNAP's federal financial eligibility requirement; the second way is by already being qualified for another government assistance program, such as TANF. The rub here is that while the SNAP financial eligibility requirements are based on strict income limits (130% of the poverty level, currently $2498 monthly gross for a family of 4, plus an even lower net income limit), eligibility for non-cash TANF benefits is a bit more lenient.

States have been allowed to develop their own criteria for TANF eligibility so long as their programs promote the four major goals of TANF; in addition to families who qualify for cash assistance, states can also grant non-cash TANF assistance to families, such as helpful brochures or 800 phone numbers to call for information. Some states have expanded these non-cash benefits to families earning more than 130% of the federal poverty level (the cutoff for SNAP, and for free school meals); this so-called "broad based categorical eligibility" allows some families to qualify for SNAP, and thus for free school meal programs, even though their income may be slightly higher than the cutoff for SNAP, or for free school meals. It is this broad based categorical eligibility that was the target of the House budget ax last year.

Some large states such as California, New York and Illinois set 130% of poverty level as the limit for categorical eligibility, the same limit as qualification for SNAP, and for free school meals; thus, families in those states are not in danger of losing their SNAP and free school meal access if Congress tightens up eligibility via other federal programs like TANF.

However, as of May 2012, 26 states and the District of Columbia have set higher cutoffs for broad based categorical eligibility, ranging from 160% of poverty level in Iowa, to 200% of poverty level in 14 other states and DC. Low income children living in these states are the ones who would lose their automatic free lunch eligibility if the changes proposed by the House last year were to become reality. Those changes would eliminate all TANF non-cash eligibility for SNAP, meaning those families who currently qualify through broad based categorical eligibility would no longer qualify.

For example, Texas sets the cutoff for broad based categorical eligibility at 165% of poverty level. David Weaver, director of the South Plains (TX) Food Bank told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that cuts proposed by the House Agriculture Committee last year would have eliminated SNAP availability for more than 3,000 families in the Lubbock area alone. The population of Lubbock County is about 284,000 people.

If their children lose automatic free lunch eligibility, could those families earning between 130%-200% of poverty level just fill out a free meal application and qualify? Yes and no. At best, their children would qualify for "reduced price" meals which require a 40 cent co-pay for lunch (full lunch price is usually about $2-3); this option is available to children living in the 12 states where categorical eligibility is currently available for those earning up to 185% of poverty level, including those families in Lubbock.

However, families in the 14 states and DC where broad based categorical eligibility is granted for families earning up to 200% of poverty level, and who earn between 185% and 200% of poverty level, would be out of luck, because the cutoff even for reduced price eligibility is 185%. These families would either have to start paying full price for their children's school meals, or else start spending some of their limited weekly food budget to make a brown bag lunch from home.

Although Congress put off most decisions about SNAP until later this year, one portion of SNAP did get cut at the start of the year, and those cuts will start to take effect this spring. About $100 million was needed to save dairy programs, and Congress found it by trimming almost 1/3 of the budget for nutrition education programs for SNAP and WIC recipients.

Each state implements its own nutrition education program. According to Stacey Dean, VP for Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "The Agriculture Department has already allocated almost $200 million in state nutrition education grants for the first half of fiscal year 2013. To absorb the $110 million cut, states will likely have to slash their programs deeply for the second half of the year. That will compromise states’ ability to promote good health and nutrition to program participants."

What is the value of the nutrition education program, called SNAP-Ed, for SNAP recipients? Matthew Marsom, Vice President for Public Health Policy and Advocacy at the non-profit Public Health Institute, explains, "SNAP-Ed helps low-income Americans make healthy choices on a limited budget, reduces their risk of chronic disease and obesity, and optimizes the economic and nutritional value of SNAP benefits.

SNAP-Ed programming has proven that investment in nutrition education can enable SNAP to effectively address the dual challenges of improving nutrition and food security among low-income populations. This funding cut to the program undermines and weakens a critical component of our nationwide efforts to promote healthy eating and prevent chronic disease just as investments to prevent obesity and promote healthy eating are beginning to show results."

Perhaps it is not surprising that some in Congress have targeted SNAP for cuts, since the program has been growing; there are more people receiving SNAP benefits now than 5 or 6 years ago. But why is that?

The Congressional Budget Office has reported that although government spending on SNAP increased by about 135% between 2007 and 2011, 65% of that growth was driven by a weak economy (meaning more people becoming poor enough to qualify), 20% was due to higher benefit amounts attributable to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (meant to stimulate the economy), and the final 15% came from other factors such as higher food costs and lower beneficiary income levels. In other words, it's the economy.

The report also predicted that this level of growth in SNAP spending will continue only until the end of 2014, at which point it will start to decline. In 2011, the government spent about $78 billion on SNAP, serving about 45 million people monthly, or one in seven residents; by 2022, those numbers are expected to decline to $73 billion in annual spending, serving 34 million people monthly, or one in 10 residents. In other words, even if Congress doesn't cut SNAP at all, the cost of the program is expected to decline anyway.

The kind of draconian cuts to SNAP the House was proposing last year are a disgrace. The number of people receiving SNAP benefits is up since 2007 because - hello? - the economy went into the toilet in 2007, remember? People lost their jobs, their homes - now should their children lose free school meals too? These are poor families; even at 200% of poverty level, that is still only a gross monthly income of $3843 for a family of 4, or just over $46,000 annually. Despite what House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) may think, the typical SNAP recipient is not a lottery winner; there are no wealthy people, or even "comfortably off" people, presently qualified for TANF or SNAP or free school meals, and no one - repeat, NO ONE - is getting rich scamming a free school lunch for their children.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.