How Trump's SNAP Proposal Could Affect School Lunch The pending federal rule changes could push a million kids off free or reduced-price school meals, at least temporarily.
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Food Fight: How 2 Trump Proposals Could Bite Into School Lunch

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Food Fight: How 2 Trump Proposals Could Bite Into School Lunch

Food Fight: How 2 Trump Proposals Could Bite Into School Lunch

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To news now that the Trump administration is working on a pair of rule changes to reduce what it calls fraud in a big government program. But as NPR's Cory Turner reports, hundreds of thousands of kids will lose access to a free lunch at school.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: For change No. 1, the Trump administration is targeting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or food stamps. Sonny Perdue, the U.S. secretary of Agriculture, told reporters that states have been too generous with the program.

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SONNY PERDUE: Some states are taking advantage of loopholes that allow people to receive the SNAP benefits who would otherwise not qualify and for which they are not entitled.

TURNER: By tightening the rules, the government estimates more than 3 million people will lose access to food stamps. Now, what's that got to do with the free school lunch program? That depends on who you ask.

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SAM ADOLPHSEN: The truth is the real impact of this rule on school lunches is virtually zero.

TURNER: That's Sam Adolphsen, policy director at the Foundation for Government Accountability. He testified earlier this month before the House Oversight Committee. But at the same hearing, Diane Sullivan told a very different story.

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DIANE SULLIVAN: Without SNAP, in addition to having less food at home, my sons could lose access to free school meals.

TURNER: Sullivan is an advocate with the group Witnesses to Hunger and has two sons in high school. Now, everyone can agree on at least one fact here - food stamps and free school lunch are separate programs. But for millions of kids, they're connected. That's because years ago Congress worried that many low-income kids weren't eating at school simply because their parents hadn't filled out the paperwork. So lawmakers threw out the paperwork, telling school districts any child in a family that gets food stamps should automatically get free lunch.

So what happens to kids when their families lose access to food stamps? Well, the Trump administration estimates that 40,000 kids will no longer get a free school lunch. And they won't qualify for a low-cost lunch, either. Many more will lose free lunch but will still qualify to eat at a reduced cost. That's little consolation for Diane Sullivan and her sons.

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SULLIVAN: Even if they qualify for reduced costs, that's $252 and an annual expense my already overwhelmed budget cannot absorb.

TURNER: Advocates are also worried, though, about one word Adolphsen said to lawmakers.

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ADOLPHSEN: In fact, in 34 states, not one single child will lose their school lunch eligibility.

TURNER: That word...

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ADOLPHSEN: Eligibility.

TURNER: See, Adolphsen's right that even with these food stamp cuts, most kids won't lose eligibility for a free or at least a low-cost school lunch. But here's the big difference. See, getting it won't be automatic anymore. The Trump administration estimates the families of nearly a million children may soon have to turn in paperwork so their kids can keep eating.

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LISA DAVIS: Experience tells us that far too many will fall through the cracks.

TURNER: Lisa Davis heads the No Kid Hungry campaign, and she says making parents opt in to the school lunch program like this may sound small, but...

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DAVIS: Confusion about eligibility, complex paperwork, human error and stigma all create barriers to enrollment.

TURNER: The other big change affecting school lunches is about something called the public charge rule. It's an old requirement that folks who want to become citizens have to show they won't depend on public benefits. The Trump administration wants to tighten the rules there, too.

PATRICIA GANDARA: This has frightened a lot of people.

TURNER: Patricia Gandara co-directs the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. And she says while the school lunch program is not part of this government crackdown, it doesn't seem to matter.

GANDARA: School personnel know that the children are eligible, but the parents won't sign the forms because parents are also very afraid of signing anything that looks like they are using any benefit for fear of losing their status, their green cards.

TURNER: The public charge rule is set to go into effect later this month. As for those food stamp cuts? The administration had to open its rule for public comment. Lots of people aired their feelings, and the administration can't really finalize the change until it's read through those comments, all 184,000 of them.

Cory Turner, NPR News.

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