The Trump administration is considering changes to the federal food stamp program that would reduce or even eliminate benefits for some families.

Because families that qualify for food stamps automatically receive free and reduced price school meals, this could mean hundreds of thousands of students nationwide could be removed from that list.

School nutrition heads at the Oregon Department of Education and in Central Oregon’s two largest school districts say a change to the federal food stamp program — officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — could result in fewer students automatically receiving free and reduced meals.

Lance McMurphy, nutrition services director at Redmond School District, said district staff were immediately worried when they heard about the proposed federal changes.

“It went like wildfire around the district office,” he said. “A bunch of people … expressed concern.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed plan is to standardize qualification for food stamps across the nation.

According to the USDA, this would mean about 16% of households would get more food stamp resources, but 19% would see a decrease in benefits, and fewer than 8,000 households would no longer be eligible for any benefits.

The agency is reviewing public comments on the proposed rule, according to USDA spokesperson Jalil Isa.

Having a family member qualify for food stamps is one of many avenues through which a student can be automatically enrolled in the free or reduced price meals program, said Damasita Sanchez, Oregon’s school nutrition manager. A USDA analysis says if its proposed food stamp rule becomes official, as many as 982,000 children nationwide could lose their automatic enrollment in the free and reduced price meals program. Sanchez did not have a number for the number of Oregon students that could lose automatic enrollment if USDA’s rule is enacted.

The other ways students in Oregon can automatically qualify for free or reduced meals is if they are on the food distribution program in Native American reservations, if a student is homeless, a runaway or a migrant, or if a student is enrolled in Head Start or Even Start, which are pre-kindergarten programs for students from low-income families.

In Bend-La Pine Schools, 2,455 students automatically qualify for free and reduced meals, according to Garra Schluter, the district’s nutrition services supervisor. In the Redmond School District, 1,634 students automatically qualify for free and reduced meals specifically because of food stamps, said the Redmond schools’ nutrition head, McMurphy.

Families in Oregon can also fill out an application for free or reduced price meals based on their household incomes, Sanchez said. Nationally, a household has to earn 130% or less of the national poverty line to qualify for free meals — for a family of four, that means an annual income of $33,475 or less. For reduced-price meals, a household has to earn between 130% and 185% of the poverty level, meaning a family of four has to earn between $33,475 and $47,637.50 annually.

Sanchez said Oregon’s $1 billion Student Success Act business tax will soon partly fund a program so that families that earn up to 300% above the national poverty line could access free meals. That means a household of four that earns up to $77,250 per year could still be eligible for free school meals in Oregon.

Heidi Dupuis, who works in the Oregon Department of Education’s child nutrition department, said the state wasn’t sure how many families who lose their automatic enrollment in free and reduced price meals would be willing to fill out that application.

Schulter said Bend-La Pine Schools staff will be constantly reminding families who lose their automatic free/reduced meals enrollment to fill out the application, which will be “a challenge.”

“We’ll call and do everything in our power to get everyone qualified for the program,” she said. “If the family needs (free or reduced meals), we’re going to do our part to make sure that happens for them.”

McMurphy agreed, saying it’s hard for families to keep up with all the notices the district sends them.

“Students are bringing home so much info, that it’s not reasonable that households can keep up with all this information,” he said.

Dupuis and Sanchez said even if the USDA’s proposed food stamps plan comes to fruition, automatic enrollment for free and reduced meals won’t be tampered with in Oregon until 30 days into next school year at the earliest. But for now, all families and school nutrition leaders in Oregon can do is wait and see if the changes come, and who will be affected by them.

“We’re anticipating that there will be an impact,” Dupuis said. “We don’t know how big it’s going to be.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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