Kids Will Pay the Price for USDA’s Push for “Flexibility” in Food Assistance Programs

Nutrition
Poverty & Family Economics

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has recently amped up its push for “flexibility” in two food assistance programs that provide food insecure children with access to consistent, healthy meals.

In the past week, we’ve seen a couple major developments on this front. First, FNS published the School Meal Flexibility rule. If implemented, this rule would further delay the full implementation of important nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) that Congress established with the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act in 2010. Next, the Acting Deputy Under Secretary of FNS announced that in the coming weeks, the bureau will be working to give states increased flexibility in administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), especially with respect to eligibility requirements.

SNAP is a vital monthly support that helps low-income households—63 percent of which include children—put food on the table. Last year, 20 million children benefited from SNAP, receiving nearly half of every dollar in benefits.

In both cases, the USDA is arguing that program administrators simply need some leeway to make sure that SNAP and the NSLP function efficiently and effectively. Unfortunately, the likelier result of the USDA’s embrace of “flexibility” is that these two crucial supports, which disproportionately benefit children, will be weakened.

Upon examining the National School Lunch standards, program operators have had several years to implement heightened nutrition standards and updated meal patterns, with 98 percent of all school districts in compliance as of 2016. Research shows that children across the nation are eating healthier school lunches under the new standards. While some program operators have certainly found implementation to be challenging, weakening the standards for milk, whole grains and sodium in the name of flexibility is hardly the answer. Instead, this rule could reduce the nutritional quality school meals. Given that low income, food insecure children are major beneficiaries of the NSLP and are also at increased risk for poor diets, this rule could be especially harmful to them.

Similarly, the changes being hinted at for SNAP (food stamps) would likely harm disadvantaged children. SNAP is a vital monthly support that helps low-income households—63 percent of which include children—put food on the table. Last year, 20 million children benefited from SNAP, receiving nearly half of every dollar in benefits. Yet the FNS announcement argues that more “state flexibility” for SNAP will lead to increased independence, personal responsibility, and work amongst SNAP participants. This language indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the vulnerable populations relying on SNAP, especially during economic downturns.

As we noted in our recent SNAP fact sheet, increased state discretion over time limits, work requirements, and other eligibility components for SNAP—even if aimed at childless adults—could have harmful effects on vulnerable children who rely on pooled resources from extended family members or live in immigrant families, as well as youth phasing out of foster care and low-income college students. Ultimately, efforts to restrict access to SNAP will weaken the program’s powerful ability to fight poverty and hunger, especially in children.

The changes being hinted at for SNAP (food stamps) would likely harm disadvantaged children.

Together, these announcements from the USDA signal that the agency is headed down a worrisome path with respect to flexibility, and millions of children may pay the price.