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Activists Protest USDA Changes That Threaten Free School Lunch

Photo caption:

Photo by Jemal Countess Getty Images for Parents Together

Justin Ruben of ParentsTogether speaks on Thursday at a press conference organized to deliver 1.5 million petitions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The petitions are protesting proposed changes to the food stamps program that would also affect the free school lunch program.

When Elle Simone Scott was a young girl, her family relied on food stamps and her school's free lunch program to get by.

"At several points in my life, receiving free lunch when I needed it the most, it was so beneficial for me," she says. "You know, it was sometimes the most complete meal that I and some of my friends would have in a day."

Now Scott, a chef and TV host of America's Test Kitchen, is part of a coalition fighting to save the program from a proposed rule change by the Trump administration.

Scott was among a few dozen people – including anti-hunger groups, parents, students and local activists – who staged a "lunch in" outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday. They were there to deliver petitions with 1.5 million signatures urging the agency not to adopt the proposed rule change.

The change, first announced over the summer, would eliminate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or SNAP, as the food stamps program is now known, for more than 3 million people by eliminating something called broad-based categorical eligibility, a policy that gives states the flexibility to waive some asset and income limits for households that receive both SNAP and other welfare benefits.

As NPR's Pam Fessler has reported, "most states take advantage of these waivers, in part because it makes it easier to administer safety-net programs, which often have different eligibility requirements."

Last month, the USDA released an analysis showing that the change would also result in nearly a million children losing automatic access to free school lunch.

The agency estimates that even with the change, about half of the affected children would still be eligible for free lunch if they applied to the program separately. Even so, the additional paperwork required could be burdensome for families that are already struggling to make ends meet, says Dionna Howard, a D.C. parent and local activist with PAVE (Parents Amplifying Voices in Education), who spoke at Thursday's event.

"It's a lot that they take you through for the little bit that they give you," says Howard, who told the crowd gathered for the event that she had first-hand experience with the SNAP program. Her mother, she said, still relies on the benefits.

The USDA analysis suggests 51% of affected kids would likely be eligible for reduced-price school meals, instead of free ones; another 4 percent, or 40,000 children, would lose free lunches altogether, because their family incomes exceed eligibility limits.

In announcing the rule change over the summer, Agriculture Secretary Sunny Perdue noted that it would save $2.5 billion a year from SNAP. But Mike Curtin, CEO of DC Central Kitchen, an anti-hunger nonprofit, argued that SNAP is "one of the most efficient, least abused, most successful governments support programs that was ever been invented." He said leaders should be looking for ways to expand access to the program, not limit it.

"We often in this country talk about the kids ... and the kids are the future," he says. "Well, if we want to give our kids a future, the first thing we need to do is give them lunch."

The public comment period on the proposed change to SNAP closed on Nov. 1. But Bethany Robertson co-founder of ParentsTogether, which helped organize the petition, hopes it will galvanize lawmakers to block the change from taking effect.

"We expect that the additional petitions will hopefully motivate some lawmakers and also other officials to just say, 'hey, wait a minute, we need to take a second look at this,'" Robertson says.

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