USDA's upcoming rules could impact school lunches

The USDA is considering the removal of automatic qualifications for food stamp benefits in order to improve the verification process.
Schools are expressing concern that it could kick students off reduced-cost lunches.

If a family is enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, they are automatically qualify for a variety of other programs. This includes free and reduced-cost lunches in schools. If the rules are implemented, thousands of family's would lose that eligibility.

In North Dakota, there are roughly 18,000 students who receive low-cost or free lunches. Due to a rule at the USDA, roughly 3,400 of them qualify thanks to an automatic eligibility provision. However, if this rule is removed, the state said all of those students would be kicked off.

"There's concern nationwide, because it's a federal program, so it will affect each state individually,” said Linda Shloer, DPI Director of Child Nutrition and Food Distribution.

For most, they will still qualify for reduced-cost meals, but they will have to apply individually through the school. That paperwork could take weeks to verify.

"Many of our households that are receiving SNAP benefits are from households where English is not the first language and our application form is extremely complex and difficult to understand. And so requiring them to fill out that form would be a great burden," Schloer said.

If the rule where to change during the school year, parents would find themselves waiting weeks for approval while their students continue to attend school. For the schools, one major concern is of ballooning expenses on unpaid meals.

“If they don't fill out the forms and they're not eligible and they're still eating, and these schools allow students to charge meals, those charges build up," Schloer said.

The USDA has been working towards independent verification for years. According to their own study, the move would cut 9 percent of households, or 1.7 million individuals off of SNAP. Because they wouldn't meet the income requirements to qualify.

More than 23,000 homes in the state participated in SNAP as of August 2019, a third of which work on an income of $1,300 a month, according the Department of Human Services.