Children line up for a meal during a summer free lunch program for low-income kids.
Children and their parents line up to receive meals during a summer lunch program for low-income children. Melissa Collins /

Washington – The U.S. House on Thursday narrowly approved a massive farm bill that would cut thousands of children from free school meals in Connecticut.

The farm bill, approved on a 213-211 vote, previously failed last month after the GOP’s conservative Freedom Caucus members withheld support as leverage to force a vote on a hard-line immigration measure, which was also voted on Thursday and failed to win enough support. No Democrat voted for the farm bill.

It would limit “categorical eligibility” for the food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Eligibility Program, or SNAP. Categorical eligibility extends eligibility for food stamps – and free school lunches – to those who qualify for other federal programs aimed at helping low-income people. The measure previously failed last month after Freedom Caucus members withheld support as leverage to force a vote on a conservative immigration measure.

Connecticut allows children to qualify for food stamps and free school lunches if they earn no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, $44,955 for a family of four. But under the bill, free school lunches would be capped for families of four who earned more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $31,980.

Shannon Yearwood, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!, said the newly approved farm bill would end free lunches for many Connecticut school children and threatens the free lunches some Connecticut schools offer all children.

Under community eligibility rules, districts where 40 percent or more of the student body qualifies for food stamps are eligible to feed all students free lunches and breakfasts.

Yearwood called the farm bill, which would authorize all U.S. Department of Agriculture programs for the next five years, a “sneak attack on our schools.”

“It will take food out of the mouths of children in Connecticut and across the nation,” she said.

Supporters of the farm bill’s new eligibility rules for food stamps and nutrition programs say the legislation is closing “loopholes.”

“Broad-based categorical eligibility is a welfare loophole used by states to circumvent food stamp income and asset limits, resulting in millions of individuals on food stamps with incomes or assets above program thresholds—at the expense of the truly needy,” said the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates most of the students who would lose their free lunches  could qualify for reduced price lunches that would cost 40 cents each. That could be a financial burden for many families — especially those with several children anti-hunger advocates say.

The number of school children who receive free or low-cost lunches in Connecticut has been rising steadily. It was 149,308, or about 25.5 percent of the state’s school children in the 2004-2005 school year and 202,025 or 36.9 percent of the student population in the 2013-2014 school year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service administers the school meal program and reimburses participating schools’ foodservice departments for the meals served to students.

The Senate farm bill, which has not yet come up for a vote, would fund pilot programs that study the effectiveness of job-training for food-stamp recipients, but would not cut food stamps or school nutrition programs. If it is approved, a final farm bill would be negotiated by key members of the House and Senate.

The House farm bill would also require food stamp recipients who are “Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents,” or ABAWD’s, to obtain at least 20 hours of work or worker training a week to qualify for benefits.

Currently, the state has a waiver from those requirements for those living in 114 Connecticut towns that have an average unemployment rate that is at least 20 percent above the national average. Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury are among the towns exempt from the work and job training requirements.

Under the House farm bill, Connecticut’s waiver and similar ones given to other states would be invalidated as of 2021.

 President Donald Trump tweeted on Thursday that he was “so happy” to see work requirements pass.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said “with the passage of this bill, we’re moving toward a poverty-fighting system where this kind of upper mobility is attainable for more Americans. This is a big deal.”

The farm bill also would change the definition of an ABAWD from a person between the ages of 18 and 49 who has no dependents and is not disabled to a person between the ages of 18 and 59 who is childless and is not disabled.

The AARP was among those lobbying against the legislation.

“AARP opposes [the farm bill] in its current form because it adds new barriers in the SNAP program, including expanding work requirements for 50-to-59 year-olds, that will result in greater food insecurity and older Americans losing the nutritional assistance they need and depend on,” the organization said in a statement.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, said the farm bill “will kick 2 million people off nutrition assistance and cut SNAP benefits by more than $23 billion.”

“Just like the Republican tax scam, the Republican farm bill is rigged for the rich,” DeLauro said. “SNAP recipients have income limits, asset limits, and work requirements. Millionaires and billionaires who pocket farm subsidies do not.”

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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