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  1. Opinion

There’s no reason a child should be denied free school lunch | Editorial

Proposed changes by the Trump administration would make some students go hungry.

When a child goes hungry, the whole world suffers. There is absolutely no reason that the Trump administration should limit who qualifies for the federal food stamps program when that decision could put nearly 200,000 children in the state of Florida and 982,000 nationally at risk of losing their direct enrollment in free school lunches. These are children who might otherwise not have any food that day, and the process should be as easy as possible for families to ensure their children have access to free lunch.

This summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed stricter guidelines to be eligible for the nation’s SNAP program, commonly referred to as food stamps. A new October analysis from the Food and Nutrition Service showed just how many children nationwide that would impact: almost one million. Now students whose parents are already on SNAP benefits are automatically enrolled in the free school lunch program. If these policy changes go through, about 45 percent of the 982,000 children whose families would lose out on the SNAP program would still be eligible for free lunch, according to the analysis. But that leaves 55 percent. While many of those will still qualify for reduced lunch, that is an extra cost burden on parents who have not traditionally expected it. What about those children? Even for those who do qualify, parents could get lost in the shuffle of additional paperwork and applications and leave children to be caught in the middle.

The proof is in the numbers. At least half of the students in all four Tampa Bay school districts — Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando — are on free or reduced lunch. In Hillsborough County, about 62 percent of students this year were on free or reduced lunch, and 47 percent are direct certified. That almost half of the students are direct certified shows the potential impact of the changes. In other counties, like Pasco and Hernando, the immediate effects are less severe. While about 54 percent of Pasco’s students are on free or reduced lunch, only 580 of those students will be affected by proposed changes to the SNAP program. Of those, about 96 percent still qualify under the application process, leaving about 25 students in the middle.

But even one student going hungry is too many. Local school districts are already planning how they will notify parents if the federal government goes ahead with these changes. The plan in Pasco is to notify every affected household through letters, emails and phone calls to make sure they apply for the school lunch program. Hillsborough also plans to ramp up messaging starting next summer. Students will have 30 days to receive their previous benefits and then families will have to apply or students will no longer receive free school lunch. For these students, lunch is often the only time they will get nutritious food.

School lunches have changed drastically since the early days of slogging through a cafeteria line, holding your nose and hoping for the best. Schools now prioritize healthy items and vegetarian or vegan options for students’ diverse dietary restrictions. Some school districts have made locally-sourced food a top initiative, exposing students to items like beef, milk and squash that is locally grown or locally produced.

There should be no unnecessary barriers for poor students to get a free school lunch. The very least the federal government can do is ensure there will be no change to this program for students. They are the most impacted and the most helpless.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.