School lunch

Gretchen DeShazer serves up hamburger pizza on a whole wheat crust in 2014 at Eastridge Elementary School.

Students eligible for free and reduced-priced lunches would face far higher hurdles to retaining their benefits at school, based on a proposed federal rule change directed at weeding out abuse.

The consequences – whether intended or not – of no longer automatically providing free meals to children whose families are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, stretch far beyond cafeterias.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture – which oversees SNAP – has estimated its change will save the agency $90 million. But, in the end, this idea takes the wrong means to its end and represents an unfunded mandate, pushing the costs down to the local level.

For instance, more than 16,000 Lincoln Public Schools students receive no-cost lunch because they receive SNAP benefits. Yet, despite this, some children enter the lunch line with no money in their accounts – and district officials have elected not to deny them meals, for obvious reasons. Many of these children may not eat otherwise, hence the need for such programs.

LPS swallowed more than $200,000 in unpaid lunch bills last year. Added confusion about whether children are eligible or certified for free meals would only increase that figure – a burden borne by all taxpayers within the district.

Another aspect of the USDA plan would eliminate the flexibility provided to states to assist families whose incomes exceed SNAP limits because of other programs in which they’re enrolled. This system seeks to prevent families from turning down raises to stay on SNAP – the perverse problem encountered by those who run into the caps on a social safety net designed to provide a boost until they can earn more.

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Research by Washington-based research firm Mathematica indicates that 75% of Nebraskans who would be affected by this rule change are children.

Most importantly, this idea doesn’t address the root problem of why these children receive free or low-cost meals at schools – poverty. Removing the automatic certification that comes along with participation in SNAP doesn’t make families or children wealthy enough to exit the program.

Yet, so many metrics rely on the populations of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.

One example is Community Learning Centers – which involve before- and after-school programs at high-poverty buildings – within LPS. Tweaking the designation responsible for defining these schools could very well have negative consequences entirely unrelated to the topic at hand, which the USDA said was to "prevent abuse of a critical safety net."

By pulling that net away to ensure higher-income individuals aren’t gaming the system, some lower-income children will fall by the wayside, among other collateral damage.

Again, the ripple effect extends far beyond this proposal’s intent. Once it breaks the surface, however, such outcomes won’t easily be undone.

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