Pilot Program Would Ease Free Lunch Eligibility, Summer Meals

lunch

The Obama administration is planning to announce a new pilot program in an effort to help poor children have better access to food through the National School Lunch Program.

States who choose to participate in the pilot program will be able to use Medicaid data to automatically certify students for free and reduced-price lunch programs.  Currently, families are required to submit an application even if they have already offered proof of their eligibility for the program through their participation in other government assistance programs.

“We know that the program works, and we want to expand it,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Many children who are eligible for free and reduced lunch meals aren’t enrolled in the program — this is going to help ensure that they receive the benefits, too.”

In order to participate, states will need to apply with the Agriculture Department.  Current plans will have five states participate in the 2016-17 school year with the hopes of expanding to 20 the following year, with the ultimate goal being to expand the program on a national level.

The program is expected to be formally introduced at an event meant to create awareness concerning the importance of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in addition to other federally funded nutrition programs.

The introduction will be followed by an announcement of plans for a provision to be included in the president’s 2017 budget, putting aside $12 billion over 10 years to the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (Summer EBT) program, which helps to supplement food purchases during the summer months when children are not enrolled in school by giving families EBT cards loaded with extra funding per child so they can afford to buy extra groceries.

The USDA has been piloting the program since 2011, finding that it can reduce food insecurities and improve nutrition, including cutting rates of very low food security by a third, writes Tove Danovich at TakePart.

As it stands, fewer than 4 million of the almost 22 million low-income children who qualify for school lunch programs receive these benefits over the summer.  The Summer EBT program is meant to bridge that gap by acting as an add-on to other government assistance programs.

According to the Agriculture Department, millions of low-income families across the country that qualify for Medicaid are currently not enrolled in the free or reduced-price lunch program, writes Roberto A. Ferdman for The Washington Post.

Smaller versions of the program have already been tested by the USDA in several places, including New York City, which saw a 7% increase in enrollment as a result of the program.

“That’s just for free lunches,” Vilsack said. “The new expanded program is going to include reduced-price lunches too, so we know that that 7 percent number is only going to go up.”

It is unknown if either of the new initiatives will be met with any opposition.  While conservatives continue to criticize federal assistance programs by arguing that they are fraught with abuse and fraud, Vilsack said he believes the new efforts will receive bipartisan support.