Hla Hla Sein, a student nutrition worker at Tenderloin Community School, distributes school lunches from Revolution Foods to third graders on April 25.

Hla Hla Sein, a student nutrition worker at Tenderloin Community School, distributes school lunches from Revolution Foods to third graders on April 25.

Free school lunches for SF students threatened by federal cuts

Currently, children of food stamp recipients are automatically enrolled in a federal benefit program that offers free breakfast and lunches at schools throughout the country.

Thousands of San Francisco school children are at risk of becoming ineligible for free federal school lunches.

A planned overhaul of eligibility requirements for the food stamp program — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) announced last week — is estimated to disqualify some 3.1 million Americans from the program by curtailing categorical eligibility. It would also impact roughly 500,000 children across the country, who would no longer qualify for reduced meals, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials estimated.

In the San Francisco Unified School District, more than 18,000 students are at risk of becoming ineligible for free school meals under the proposal by the USDA, according to Jennifer LeBarre, the school district’s director of student nutrition services. The proposal could go into effect following a 60-day comment period.

Currently, children of food stamp recipients are automatically enrolled in a federal benefit program that offers free breakfast and lunches at schools throughout the country. The programs are linked in an effort to reduce paperwork.

The new policy aims to close a “loophole” in existing law that allows families with higher incomes to benefit from food stamps, federal agriculture officials said in a statement last month.

Current law allows for states like California and areas within states to have different income eligibility criteria based on cost of living. If the change takes effect, it would set a uniform income criteria, similar to the current national food lunch criteria, which is capped at $47,638 for a family of four, explained LeBarre.

“The proposed change at the federal level would not allow California to take into account the higher cost of living here for families applying and trying to qualify for food stamps,” said LeBarre. “There would be one federal eligibility standard — therefore, if parents are making more than that, they would no longer qualify for those programs.”

In SFUSD, at least 18,000 children at 53 schools with the highest number of students who are directly certified for food stamps would be affected, said LeBarre. The district’s community eligibility program, which enables it to serve free meals to students by removing paperwork and fees at high poverty schools, also would be affected.

These schools are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs, such as food stamps. Because of the federal reimbursement, the SFUSD is able to claim a majority of those meals — some 99.5 percent of eligible students across the 53 schools that have the program — for free, said LeBarre.

“If we have less students qualifying for food stamps, there are less students certified, and therefore no longer able to apply for the community eligibility provision,” said LeBarre.

Barry Saskin, federal policy advisor to the California School Nutrition Association, called the proposed change a “terrible policy” and “an attack on working-class families.”

“The cost of living in California is extremely high, and eligibility for school meals uses a single national poverty standard. We have children in California who are living in poverty relative to their community but don’t even qualify for reduced price meals,” said Saskin, adding that “cost of living does not factor into eligibility” in a state where both the cost of living and minimum wage are on the rise.

On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom has pushed back against the proposal on Twitter: “500,000 children without school lunches because of this administration’s reckless policies. Let that sink in,” Newsom wrote. “If these kids weren’t from low-income families, there would be protests in the streets. Yet, there’s been barely any coverage. It’s appalling.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

Bay Area Newseducation

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