Changes to eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could mean many students will no longer qualify for free school meals. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

White House rule change will take food away from California kids at home and at school

By Zetta Reiker

Having worked in school food service for more than a decade, I know first-hand the impact of school meals on kids’ health, happiness and ability to learn.

That’s why I’m profoundly concerned about a new proposal by the Trump administration that will put school meals in jeopardy for more than 500,000 kids across the nation and make it much more difficult for schools in my district to reach all the kids who rely on free meals at school.

That’s exactly what will happen if the White House rolls back a policy called Broad Based Categorical Eligibility (BBCE), which helps low-income families enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, known as CalFresh in California) if they’re already eligible for other anti-poverty programs.

Specifically, restricting this policy will result in 3.6 million low-income people losing access to SNAP in the U.S. More than 346,000 Californians who currently receive CalFresh would lose benefits if this new rule goes into effect, and nearly two-thirds of them live in families with children. That’s a huge problem.

SNAP is one of our nation’s most powerful tools for ending childhood hunger, lifting millions of children out of poverty each year. And its effect on educational and health outcomes is compelling, too. Low-income kids who receive SNAP benefits are more likely to graduate from high school and to have better physical health.

If this rule goes into effect, students who qualify for SNAP through BBCE may no longer qualify for free school meals. And in school districts that currently offer universal free meals through the federal Community Eligibility Provision, changes to SNAP could mean schools no longer meet the eligibility threshold or that it’s no longer a financially viable option.

I can attest to the benefits of this incredibly effective, efficient program – including the elimination of school meal debt, reduced stigma and more kids eating school meals. Losing this option would be a huge step backwards.

Ultimately, if this rule takes effect kids will face a devastating double whammy: lost meals both at home and at school. Simply put, more kids will go hungry.

We already know that hunger affects a child’s ability to learn. In fact, nutrition is one of the most important school supplies we have. When kids are hungry, they can’t concentrate and are more likely to be sick. Behavioral and discipline problems increase, as do visits to the school nurse, to the principal and to detention. Test scores drop and school attendance levels fall.

But when kids have consistent, reliable access to food at home and at school it helps them learn more, stay healthier and grow up stronger.

It’s unfathomable to think that 1 out of every 5 kids in California lives with hunger. It’s worse to think that this proposal by the Administration will make this hunger much worse. Luckily, we have a chance to stop it. But the clock is ticking. Join No Kid Hungry and its partners in telling the USDA not to take food away from kids at home and at school.

Zetta Reicker is the former director of student nutrition services for the San Francisco Unified School District and executive director of A Better Course.

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