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How Proposed Changes to SNAP Could Impact Older Adults and Children

When it comes to bipartisanship, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is often used as a good example. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which houses SNAP, the program is designed to help end hunger and move people forward to self-sufficiency. As suggested by USDA, access to nutritious food is critical for Americans to reach their full potential and be productive members of our society. This is a principle that nearly everyone can get behind. And Congress did just that when they passed the bipartisan Farm Bill of 2018 reauthorizing SNAP, without any changes to eligibility for the program.

However, on July 23, 2019, USDA announced a proposed rule that alters a significant SNAP provision. Under the new rule, a policy will be changed that allows states to make Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) beneficiaries automatically eligible for SNAP. The proposed rule states that it seeks to uphold the integrity of SNAP and standardize how TANF benefits confer with SNAP eligibility. However, it ultimately chips away at the core purpose of SNAP – to ensure access to nutritious foods for those in need – and adversely impacts their health.

If this rule is passed, USDA says 3.1 million individuals would lose SNAP eligibility, increasing food insecurity. The potential impacts of the proposed rule have raised concerns among members of Congress, advocates, and other important stakeholders. BPC submitted comments opposing USDA’s proposed rule, highlighting its potential to reduce access to healthy foods for older adults and school children.

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Less Food Security for Older Adults

Today, SNAP provides a concrete path to food security and better health for older adults. Sadly 5.5 million seniors face the threat of hunger and not being properly nourished. Food security among older adults will suffer under the proposed rule according to USDA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis. Households with one or more elderly individuals would be disproportionately affected by the rule; an estimated 13.2% of all SNAP households with elderly members will lose their benefits.

Ensuring access to nutritious foods is key for older adults to remain healthy, especially considering that three in four Americans over 65 live with multiple chronic conditions. Not only is food security status strongly related to the likelihood of developing chronic disease, but it is also associated with having a greater number of chronic conditions. A 2017 USDA report notes that prevalence of chronic conditions for adults in households with low food security is on average 18% higher than those in high food-secure households.

Reduced Access to School Meals

Children spend most of their time in school; therefore, ensuring access to nutritious school meals provides an important opportunity to optimize health and academic performance. For these reasons, BPC’s 2012 report, Lots to Lose, included recommendations to promote nutritious school meals including advising schools to improve food and nutrition education by aggressively implementing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which last reauthorized the school meal programs.

SNAP is critical to combatting child hunger, particularly in low-income communities. Students in households that are eligible for SNAP are eligible for free meals in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP) without having to submit a separate application. More than 30 million students participate in the NSLP and 14 million students participate in the SBP each school day. NSLP and SBP provide students with balanced meals that meet national evidence-based nutrition standards and ensure they are getting fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other necessary nutrients that set them up for long-term health.  Healthy school meals, like those provided through the NSLP and SBP, are linked to better attendance rates and better test scores.

One key ramification that was not included in the rule’s Regulatory Impact Analysis was the impact on children’s access to school meals. An estimated 265,000 to 500,000 children would lose eligibility for free lunch under the proposed rule. The estimates vary significantly partially due to the proposed rule not addressing school meals in the analysis.

This proposed rule might not only affect individual families, but entire schools and school districts, as the rule could remove many schools from the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools and districts in low-income areas to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to students without collecting household applications. The community eligibility provision has been a popular option for schools of high need since its inception. School participation grew 14% from school year 2017 – 2018 to school year 2018 – 2019. Nearly 13.6 million children in 28,542 schools benefited from the provision in 2018.

In order to qualify for community eligibility, at least 40% of the student population must be certified to receive free school meals without an application. Since the proposed revision would reduce the number of students who receive free school meals, schools’ and school districts’ abilities to take advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision could be in serious jeopardy.

BPC is committed to expanding access to common sense solutions that increase positive health outcomes. The proposed changes to SNAP create significant barriers to healthy and reliable meals for many Americans, from school-aged children to older adults. While BPC understands the goal of the rule is to protect the integrity of the program, ultimately the unintended consequences of this rule are too severe to be overlooked. For these reasons, BPC opposes the proposed rule. The public comment period ended on September 23, 2019 with over 75,000 comments submitted. However, no date has been set for USDA to finalize an official ruling.