A federal proposal to change eligibility rules for food assistance benefits has drawn concerns from New Jersey legislators, childhood hunger advocates and school officials.
Last month, the United States Department of Agriculture unveiled a proposal to limit automatic eligibility for federal food subsidies to only households that receive substantial, ongoing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)-funded benefits. Shortly after the proposal was announced, it was revealed that the change would impact 3.1 million people receiving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, including 68,000 in New Jersey.
What’s uncertain now is how the rule change will impact students who receive free and reduced-price lunches at school, as well as local school districts where funding is based partially on its free and reduced lunch populations.
In New Jersey, 446,775 students receive free lunch and 66,295 receive reduced-price lunch based on a combination of direct certification from the Department of Agriculture and paper applications submitted each school year.
The effects may extend beyond the lunchroom. The number of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals is used to determine Title I federal funding for schools, state aid, and eligibility for grants.
“It’s going to be a domino effect throughout the whole system,” Vineland school food service director Purvesh Patel said.
Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey, said that it’s difficult to determine how many of those students might be impacted by the rule change.
She said that of the New Jersey residents who would be kicked off the SNAP program, 26,000 were younger than 18.
“This really will have an impact and that is being downplayed,” she said.
LaTourette said some children and families may still qualify for free or reduced price meals, but they will no longer be directly certified, meaning their parents will have to fill out paper applications for eligibility.
In Vineland, where 52% of students receive free meals and 6% receive reduced-price meals, Patel said they are monitoring the proposed rule to see where it goes. Forty percent of the students there are directly certified.
“But I can tell you, off the bat, it will affect our population here as far as free meal status,” he said.
Patel said Vineland plans to revamp its communications to parents about paper applications for free and reduced-price meals to ensure that no student is left hungry.
He said the food service program will likely lose some of its federal reimbursements per meal because of the change.
Wildwood Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings, whose district participates in the Community Eligibility Program (CEP) and receives 100% reimbursement through the federal government, said he is also unsure of the local impact.
Currently, 74% of students there are eligible for free lunch and 2% for reduced. The CEP allows a district to provide free lunch to all students due to its already high percentage of eligibility.
LaTourette said some schools may fall out of eligibility for CEP or for full funding if the rules are approved, and may discontinue universal food service programs.
“The ripple effect I think could be dramatic,” she said. “This cut in general and making up for the loss of meals in the home and in the school is not something that any charity in the state of New Jersey could fill the gap on. The numbers are just too big.”
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said that proposed rule change will close a “loophole” used to bypass important eligibility guideline.
The USDA said the changes were inspired after a Minnesota millionaire last year revealed he received SNAP benefits for more than year due to his state’s guidelines, which based eligibility only off of income and not assets. New Jersey’s eligibility rules are similar to Minnesota.
LaTourette said it is wrong to call the automatic eligibility provisions from states a “loophole.”
“It’s simply a way of trying to extend benefits to people who clearly need them and are working to keep body and soul together,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, who sits on the Agricultural Committee for the House of Representatives said the legislators have expressed concern over the changes, which he said would have a bigger impact on South Jersey than in other areas of the state because of the economic conditions, rates of child poverty and per capita incomes.
“You want to make sure kids are obviously being fed properly and one of the problems is that this really hits those kids who fall into working families categories, people who are working who are really giving it their best but because of their income being lower receive these benefits,” Van Drew said.
He said this should be revisited through legislation, although he said it would likely never advance due to extreme partisanship in Congress. According to reports, a similar rule change was already blocked in Congress last year when it passed the Farm Bill.
Those interested can comment on the proposed rule through regulations.gov. The comment period will be open for 60 days.