The Trump administration proposed a rule last week that would cut free school meals for more than 500,000 kids. The proposal would take away food stamp benefits for as many as 3.1 million people enrolled in state food assistance programs. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) failed to mention the school lunch side effect in the proposal, but now government officials are discovering it could make a serious impact on thousands of kids.
So why is Trump taking away free school lunches? According to the Trump administration, this new rule was designed to save money, and eliminate “loopholes” that Trump’s Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue says allow recipients to “bypass important eligibility guidelines.” Perdue claimed in a statement that many states have “misused this flexibility without restraint,” implying that many food stamp recipients don’t need the benefits.
Anti-poverty advocates like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., disagree. Pelosi called the proposal “an act of staggering callousness.” In her official statement, she said that this “cruel and counterproductive” proposal would “steal food off the table of working families and hungry children.” This isn’t the first time a proposal like this has emerged — House Republicans tried to put similar food stamp restrictions in place last year, but were blocked by the Senate.
Whether or not this was the administration’s intention, the proposal, if passed, will make it much harder for millions of Americans to receive welfare benefits. And though it wasn’t mentioned in the proposal, the new regulations include cuts to in-school meals for low-income kids. The proposal will remove automatic eligibility for free lunches, which Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., says “must be made public” so that the full impact of this new rule can be considered.
According to Scott in a public letter to Perdue, USDA officials explained the impact the rule would have on free school meals during a phone briefing, but failed to include that information when the rule was published in the Federal Register.
During this phone call, USDA officials said that 93% of kids would still qualify for reduced-price meals, but Scott says this unfounded statistic violates an executive order requiring the USDA to provide “relevant scientific and technical findings.” Scott requested that the committee provide an accurate number of children who will lose free meal eligibility, and explain why this impact was not published.
This information is important, given how much school lunch has been popping up in the news lately. Recently, a Pennsylvania school district warned that children could end up in foster care if their parents could not pay overdue school lunch bills; an Alabama elementary school has been “lunch shaming” kids by stamping their arms with the message “I need lunch money.” A Rhode Island school district has started serving kids with lunch debt cold food instead of hot meals. This is clearly a serious and growing issue: Median lunch debt rose from $2,000 to $2,500 per school between 2016 and 2018.
Thousands of kids already can’t afford school lunch, and this rule will ensure that many more go hungry.