How Trump admin food stamp changes could put school districts in greater debt

By: - October 16, 2019 9:12 am

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The rollout of new federal regulations for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has families and school districts nervously waiting to find out who will pay for school lunches after more than 95,000 Michigan households are expected to lose their food stamp benefits.

U.S. Department of Agriculture | Susan J. Demas

The changes, which make qualifying for SNAP benefits much more difficult, will affect the number of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches at school. 

The Trump administration says the changes are necessary to close a “loophole” for states setting their own regulations through the broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE) policy to determine eligibility. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in the proposed rule announcement that the changes will “address program integrity issues.”

Under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), SNAP recipients automatically qualify for free or reduced price lunches. But with regulations around who qualifies for SNAP getting tighter, many students are expected to lose this automatic qualification.

The policy changes will affect an estimated 58,743 Michigan children, according to the United Way of Southeastern Michigan.

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Education and nutrition experts are concerned that many students who cannot afford to pay the full price for school meals will add to the school lunch debt for that district. 

Families that lose their SNAP benefits can still qualify for free or reduced price meals, but will have to go through an application process.

To qualify, a family’s annual income can not exceed a certain amount based on household size. For a family of four in Michigan, this calculates to an annual income of $47,638 or less. 

For the 2018-19 school year, more than 760,000 of Michigan’s students were eligible for free or reduced price meals. Out of Michigan’s 889 public school districts and charters, 470 had 50% or more of their students receiving financial assistance for school meals in 2018, according to figures from MI School Data. 

These policy changes are largely going to hurt poorer communities in Michigan, United Way Healthy Kids Manager Bryan VanDorn said.

“On the whole, the higher the free and reduced percentage is a direct reflection of the socioeconomic status of that local community,” VanDorn said.

More school lunch debt?

As fewer students from low-income families are expected to qualify for free and reduced-price meals, the burden of school lunch debt could be a rising problem for Michigan school districts. 

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“This is just going to be another financial pressure on districts, as if there aren’t enough already,” said Michigan Education Association (MEA) spokesman David Crim. “I think the debt that these schools will face with their school lunch programs will grow, especially if they’re trying to do the right thing and offer these kids, who need and deserve it, free school lunches.”

Lunch debt isn’t a new issue for many school districts, but the problem could worsen if the SNAP changes put a greater strain on struggling families and communities. 

According to a report from the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a national nonprofit based in Arlington, Va., that represents school nutrition professionals, 75.3% of districts nationwide had unpaid lunch debt during the 2016-17 school year. While the amount of debt can range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, the average district has about $2,000 to $2,500 worth of unpaid lunch debt. 

Working to pay down debt

As school officials balance the desire to provide for students and sustain financial viability, districts are pushed to make tough decisions on how to tackle the debt. 

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In 2017, U.S. Department of Agriculture required schools to develop plans to address students who have insufficient funds in their lunch accounts. 

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service spent more than $23 billion in Fiscal Year 2018 on child nutrition programs, and more than 61% of that went toward the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). 

But despite schools relying heavily on federal assistance for school lunches, the USDA prohibits schools from using federal funds to pay off meal debt.

So in order to pay off these balances, especially once the debt becomes uncollectible for students that are no longer enrolled in the district, schools must make budget decisions to relocate funds and relieve these debts. 

According to a memo from the Michigan Department of Education, schools by the end of each year must cover inactive uncollectible meal charges using funds from the district General Fund, local funding, funding from school or community organizations or any other non-federal source. 

Without federal assistance and a limited school aid budget in the state, districts look to families and community organizations.

The SNA reported that the majority of districts with unpaid meal debt contact families first before relying on other tactics to prevent or minimize debt.

Another way that districts handle outstanding debt due to unpaid lunches is through one-time donations. About 56% of districts say they utilize financial assistance provided through donations to relieve school lunch debt. 

Despite the report showing that donations are the least-common way that districts minimize debt, a few donations to school lunch programs in Michigan made headlines this year. 

At the end of August, Fetch Brewing Company in Whitehall paid off $5,614 of lunch debt burdening Whitehall District Schools and Montague Area Public Schools. In Montague, the donation of $1,105 cleared overdue balances for 171 families, and the $4,509 donated to Whitehall schools impacted 500 families.

According to policies for both districts, if elementary students have lunch debts of $20 or middle school and high school students have $15 in unpaid charges, they are given an “alternative sandwich” until the balance is paid off. Before putting students on the “alternative meal list,” school staff make two phone calls to the parents and send home a letter.  

Fetch wasn’t the first Michigan brewery to give back to its local school district in this way. On Aug. 13, the Mitten Brewing Co. donated $2,700 to pay off the lunch debt at Suttons Bay Public Schools.

As communities and schools work together to address food insecurity and poverty related to the SNAP program and NSLP, a number of state and federal officials are coming out against the Trump administration’s policies and calling for a reversal. 

Nessel opposes Trump’s SNAP restrictions, calls rule ‘entirely unacceptable’

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and U.S. Rep Haley Stevens (D-Rochester) have all sent written opposition of the policy changes to the USDA, and Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a comment letter.

“I am horrified that the federal government feels comfortable not only in depriving adults of the essential assistance needed to put food on their tables,” Nessel said in a statement last month, “but also denying 58,743 Michigan children from eating lunch at school and consequently impacting their ability to learn.” 

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.