17,000 Washington students could lose free meals over food stamp changes

SEATTLE -- More than 3 million Americans are at risk of losing food stamps under a Trump administration proposal.

The rule change would limit who is eligible for assistance and the ripple effects will trickle all the way down to Washington schools.

Some say Washington families are at a higher risk of being impacted by proposed changes to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - or SNAP - eligibility. That's because the costs of living and childcare are more expensive than the national average.

"The poverty rate in Washington state is not the same as federal poverty rate, so allowing families who earn up to 200 percent of the poverty level, boy those families are still really struggling," said Rep. Kim Schrier, D-8th District.

Under federal law, people with a household income of up to 130 percent of the poverty level qualify for SNAP. That's about $27,000 for a family of three.

Current rules under broad-based categorical eligibility allow states to increase income limits up to 200 percent of the poverty level, or about $42,000 for that family of three. About 40 states take advantage of this option.

But it's the broad-based categorical eligibility that the Trump administration is proposing change. President Donald Trump's Department of Agriculture says the most at-risk under this proposal are seniors and those dealing with disabilities.

"These are people living on fixed income in one of the most expensive regions in the country," said Claire Lane, director of the Anti-Hunger and Nutrition Coalition.

Kids are also at risk. Data from the state suggests 17,000 Washington students could lose the ability to qualify for free school meals with this change. Across the country, it's about 500,000 kids.

The vulnerability is due to the fact that kids automatically qualify for free school meals if their household is eligible for SNAP or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). If the criteria for qualifying for SNAP changes, then the students that fall off SNAP will also be ineligible for free meals.

In addition, individual schools are at risk. In Washington, when about two-thirds of the student body is automatically enrolled in free meals, the Community Eligibility Provision allows that school to offer free meals to every student without collecting meal applications.

If those eligibility numbers drop under that threshold as a result of students losing SNAP, the school will lose the ability to provide free meals to everyone. This means the number of students at risk of losing free meals in the state has the potential to be greater than 17,000.

Schrier said the change is jeopardizing the academic future of these kids. The pediatrician-turned-congresswoman said supporting food stamps is an obvious choice.

"There is no division in my district when it comes to this issue," she said.

Access to food assistance crosses political boundaries. When Republicans controlled Congress last year, they still failed in getting enough support in their own party to pass similar changes to SNAP in the Farm Bill.

Some Republicans, however, and especially the Trump administration, believe cracking down on eligibility will limit fraud and save money.

Proponents consistently point to an example of a Minnesota millionaire with low income who successfully enrolled in the program to prove a point. SNAP has 1 percent fraud rate, one of the lowest among all federal programs.

As for money, the Department of Agriculture proposal said the rule change would save more than $9 billion in the next five years.

"Of course it's a cost savings but it comes at a tremendous expense," Schrier said.

The public has 60 days to comment on the proposal. The comment period ends September 23, 2019.