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Thousands of students around Wisconsin could lose access to free and reduced lunch under a proposed federal rule change to food stamp eligibility.

A proposed federal change to eligibility for food stamps could affect the free and reduced lunch status for at least 8,800 Wisconsin students.

According to June data from the state Department of Health Services, 38,600 people would lose eligibility to the state’s FoodShare program due to the changes in income requirements proposed. Of that group, 8,800 were “school-age children who would lose eligibility for free and reduced lunch at school,” according to an email from DHS spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt.

The rule would change the definition of “benefits” and what is classified as income in determining a family’s eligibility for food stamp benefits. The comment period for the rule closed Nov. 1 after being reopened in October following concerns from some Democrats about the effects of the rule on children.

Some of the 8,800 students in Wisconsin could still be eligible for free or reduced lunch, but their families would have to fill out paperwork to apply. Eligibility for SNAP benefits automatically enrolls students into the free and reduced lunch programs. 

Goodsitt wrote that the number could end up higher than 8,800.

"There may be additional students who are not enrolled in FoodShare but who are currently receiving free and reduced lunch due to other eligibility rules who could also be impacted by the proposed rule change," she wrote. "Also, there may be students who live in FoodShare enrolled households who may lose eligibility, because there are household assets that are not tested under the current categorical eligibility system."

According to The Washington Post, up to 500,000 students could lose benefits around the country.

An analysis by the government as part of the rule consideration process found that as many as 982,000 children would no longer be automatically enrolled in a free lunch program, but about 445,000 would still be eligible and would have to enroll themselves. Another about 497,000 children would lose eligibility for free school meals but remain eligible for reduced price, according to the analysis, while about 40,000 children would no longer be eligible for a free or reduced school meal and would have to pay full price.

The 8,800 students are about 2.5% of the 349,386 students the state Department of Public Instruction categorized as economically disadvantaged in the 2018-19 school year. Students are eligible for free or reduced lunch if their family’s income is at or below 185% of the federal poverty line, though FoodShare provides food stamps for families up to 200% of the poverty line.

In the Madison School District, 13,751 students were eligible for free or reduced lunch as of October 2018, according to DPI data. MMSD also has 15 schools participating in the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, which allows them to provide breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost. An Urban Institute analysis estimates 142,000 students around the country could lose the meal benefits through CEP, though it’s unclear if any Madison schools are among those at risk.

Some Wisconsin advocacy groups, as well as Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, submitted comments opposing the rule change. The Hunger Task Force, based in Milwaukee, wrote that the rule would “unduly burden schools and decrease access to school meals.”

“When a student is directly certified for free meals, the student’s family does not need to complete the application for free or reduced-price meals,” task force director of of advocacy Maureen Fitzgerald wrote. “Direct certification decreases administrative burden for school staff and families while improving the integrity of the certification process, as it establishes eligibility using a data-match with other federal programs.”

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Scott Girard is the local k-12 education reporter at the Cap Times. A Madison native, he joined the paper in 2019 after working for six years for Unified Newspaper Group. Follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.