West Virginia education officials are sounding alarm bells as 120,000 households could lose automatic eligibility for free school meals. The change could come as part of a Trump administration proposal to limit access to food stamps.
In July, the United States Department of Agriculture announced it would rein in food stamp access by removing automatic enrollment if an individual already applied for other state-run benefit programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Children nationwide automatically qualify for free lunches if their families receive food stamps.
It was originally unclear how the proposed policy changes would affect children’s access to school meals.
Then, earlier this month, the federal government revealed the change would mean nearly 1 million children nationwide would no longer be directly certified for free school meals based on their participation in SNAP.
State education and health officials in the last few weeks have determined 120,000 West Virginia households, which is likely up to 50,000 students, could lose automatic eligibility to free school meals.
“That’s two breakfasts and two lunches. That can be a really high cost for families even with a reduced rate,” Amanda Harrison, executive director of the West Virginia Department of Education Office of Child Nutrition, said.
“We feel like this is a really bad deal for West Virginia,” she said.
The change would require families to separately sign up for free meal access, however, Harrison noted that the SNAP change could effectively remove some children from free meal eligibility.
She noted that some West Virginia counties eliminated positions aimed at helping families access free school meals due to the state’s participation in automatic eligibility.
Harrison, who has been in her role for three years, said the proposed change was the most significant threat to students’ food access in her time with the department.
“The USDA did not give us a timeline as to when this will roll out,” she said. “This could really have serious implications.”
This is the third time the Trump administration has proposed to cut food stamps. The changes announced in July are aimed at reducing what the administration has said is “widespread fraud.”
More than 25,000 West Virginians — mostly elderly, children and people living with disabilities — would lose SNAP benefits under the proposed cuts revealed in the summer.
The changes would revise what’s known as broad based categorical eligibility, a policy that permits states to raise SNAP income eligibility limits and slowly roll back benefits from families who build up income.
Harrison said school officials are also concerned about how the proposed SNAP changes would impact what’s called the Community Eligibility Provision that allows counties to provide free meals to all students no matter the income level of their families.
West Virginia, where one in five children struggles to access adequate food, leads the nation in giving students access to food. The state is first in the nation in school breakfast participation.
In the current school year, 43 counties are providing free meals for all students through CEP.
Counties plug in data to a federally-mandated formula to determine if they can use CEP. The formula includes the number of children automatically certified for free meals, primarily due to participation in SNAP.
If fewer kids students are automatically enrolled in SNAP or eligible for program, it could result in districts no longer being eligible for CEP.
Harrison said it was unlikely that all counties using CEP could continue to provide free meals for all students without the federal government’s reimbursement through the program.
“The proposed rule would take away automatic free meals from additional children who otherwise would not be considered as being directly impacted by changes to the categorical eligibility in SNAP,” the state Department of Education said in a press release.
Harrison noted the Trump administration had not released its own analysis on how of the SNAP cuts would impact CEP.
The USDA reopened its public comment on the proposed SNAP changes for 14 days to allow for response on the new school meals data.
Most federal public comment period times are 30 to 60 days.
The West Virginia Department of Education will submit a comment before the Nov. 1 deadline, Harrison said.
“A 14-day public comment time says it all,” she said. “It seems like with this one they know what they want, and they’re going to do whatever they want to get it.”