Approximately 37 million Americans live in food insecure households — households that lack dependable access to enough food to live healthy lives. This food insecurity is linked to a crippling array of health issues including hypertension, diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer in adults. With regards to children, food insecurity increases a child’s risk for mental health disorders, chronic disease, and can impair a child’s cognitive development.
To address this public health challenge the federal government has created several nutrition programs. Among the most important of these programs are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the National School Lunch Program (NLSP), and the School Breakfast program (SBP). Proposed changes to SNAP eligibility currently under consideration by the USDA impact all of these programs, putting millions of children at risk of experiencing ongoing food insecurity.
SNAP is the largest nutrition program in the country and is jointly run by federal and state governments. In 2018, SNAP helped approximately 39.8 million low-income Americans fight food insecurity. SNAP provides qualifying households with funds to purchase food through an Electronic Benefit Transfer card (EBT). The NLSP and SBP help schools provide healthy meals to kids across the country. Last year, 30 million children were fed lunch and 14.7 million children were fed breakfast each day.
To receive SNAP benefits, a household must meet income guidelines—a gross income at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) and a net income at or below 100 percent of the FPL—or a household may become categorically eligible. Categorical eligibility allows households to automatically qualify for SNAP if they already receive benefits from government programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) that check income and assets to confer eligibility. Categorical eligibility is meant to simplify the SNAP application process for the household and the government by decreasing the administrative burden on both groups.
However, states vary in the types of benefits a household must receive to qualify for categorical eligibility—this is referred to as broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE). In some states, the use of BBCE allows families to receive SNAP benefits when their income exceeds the 130 percent FPL gross income and 100 percent FPL net income guidelines. The USDA is concerned that this practice is bypassing important eligibility guidelines and that households are receiving SNAP that “clearly do not need it.” As a result, the USDA proposed regulations on July 24, 2019, that would limit the type of government benefits that could be used to qualify for categorical eligibility. If these regulations are finalized, the USDA estimates that 3.1 million Americans would lose their SNAP benefits.
This potential change to SNAP eligibility has a ripple effect that further threatens the food security of children across the country by decreasing their access to the NSLP and SBP. Within these programs children are eligible for free school meals if their household income is below 130 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) and reduced priced meals if their household income is between 130 percent and 185 percent of the FPL. However, the NSLP and SBP also have categorical eligibility measures that automatically certify a student for free meals if they participate in another federal assistance program such as SNAP. Based on these eligibility mechanics, some children could lose their free school meals if they lose their SNAP benefits.
The USDA’s original regulatory impact analysis did not address the ancillary impact on school nutrition programs. However, Representative Robert Scott, Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue on July 26, 2019, highlighting the omission of this important analysis and its impact on the public comment process. Public comment for the SNAP regulations closed on September 23, 2019. But on October 15, 2019, the USDA provided additional regulatory analysis addressing the impact the proposed changes would have on the school nutrition programs. The USDA also reopened the public comment period until November 1, 2019.
The USDA’s updated analysis indicates that 982,000 children would no longer be directly certified for the NSLP and SBP programs because of the loss of their SNAP benefits. However, the agency estimates that based on household income, 445,000 of the children would still be eligible for free meals; 497,000 of the children would now only be eligible for reduced priced meals; and 40,000 children would not qualify for any discount under federal law. Based on these calculations, approximately 500,000 children would lose access to free school lunch and breakfast. However, there are additional variables that affect this baseline number.
First, families that qualify for free school meals based on income now have to go through a more complicated eligibility process and some advocates believe that this could be a barrier to participation for some families. Lisa Davis, Senior Vice President of No Kid Hungry, shared that “we hear from schools all the time about the challenge they have with getting families to understand the paperwork or to get it back.”
Second, some schools qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). This allows schools to offer free meals to all students regardless of income if at least 40 percent of the student body is categorically eligible for free school meals. The USDA argues that this special program mitigates the 500,000 student estimate because some of the impacted students attend schools that provide free meals to all of their students through the CEP. However, the USDA does not analyze whether any schools could lose CEP certification because a large enough portion of their student body loses SNAP benefits (through the proposed changes) which drops the school below the 40 percent threshold.
Third, states have adopted policies to increase access to free school meals that could mitigate some of the impact of the regulation (the Network has some excellent resources addressing these policies in the context of the School Breakfast Program). For example, some states have universally free school meals so that all students regardless of income have access to free meals.
The mechanics of the potential regulatory change to SNAP are complex. However, at its core, this is a narrative about meeting the basic human needs of vulnerable Americans. Broad-based categorical eligibility in the SNAP program helps address the “benefit cliff,” the steep drop off in assistance that occurs once a household exceeds the standard income guidelines. Under the current income guidelines a family of four can only receive SNAP benefits if their gross income monthly is at or below $2,790, which equates to $33,480 annually. Are the needs of a family that makes a few dollars more so different that they should be denied SNAP and free school meals? It is important to have a full understanding of the public health implications of proposed regulatory changes, especially when they affect vulnerable populations.
This post was written by Mathew Swinburne, J.D., Associate Director, Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region Office. The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.