No cuts in free school lunches

Halloween night was a sweet success for many children around the country. Lots of candy was hauled in as part of the annual “trick-or-treat” tradition Oct. 31. The following day, while kids were still sorting through their tasty treasures, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ended public comments on a proposed rule change that would limit eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

SNAP is this nation’s main anti-hunger program. In 2018, SNAP offered assistance to 40.3 million people who struggle to put food on the table because of unemployment, underemployment, illness or other challenges.

No date has yet been announced on whether the public comments received will lead to revisions in the cutbacks, which the Trump administration announced last summer. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in July that the intent was to end welfare fraud.

“We are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it,” Perdue said in July.

Part of the SNAP cutback also affects children who receive free school lunches. Up to 982,000 U.S. children will lose eligibility for free lunches under the proposed rule change.

Catholic organizations banded together last September to oppose the SNAP cutbacks, particularly those affecting children.

“Because each person’s life is a sacred gift from God, all people have a right to life that must be defended and protected from its beginning to its end,” the coalition of Catholic organizations wrote in a letter to the USDA.

The agencies included the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities USA, the Catholic Health Association of the United States, Catholic Rural Life and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

“Taking away this vital resource (free school meals) puts children’s growth, development and ability to learn at risk,” the agencies said in a statement. The SNAP cutbacks will put a strain on nonprofit agencies that assist the poor, such as St. Vincent de Paul. “These organizations currently feed millions of people per year,” they said.

Tightening regulations to prevent people from “abusing the system” may be the intent of the SNAP cutbacks. (Perdue said that the cutbacks would save an estimated $2.5 billion a year.) Yet when it comes to hunger, especially among children, it seems that this nation should err on the side of compassion. Surely other cutbacks, such as excessive spending on travel and other non-essential frills and junkets by elected leaders, for example, could be targeted.

In a message for World Food Day on Oct. 16, Pope Francis cautioned that the human person must be valued above monetary gain. “The battle against hunger and malnutrition will not end as long as the logic of the market prevails and profit is sought at any cost,” said Pope Francis.

Approximately 40 million Americans are “food insecure,” according to Catholic agencies, and more than 12 million of those are children. “Reducing food assistance for low-income people and families in the face of such need will only make matters worse,” the church officials say.

Using the trick-or-treating analogy, we should not play tricks by taking away free school meals from children. For so many of them, it’s a treat they would otherwise not have. As a nation that has been abundantly blessed with economic wealth, we have a moral obligation to ensure that hungry children have food to eat. That has been the purpose of free school lunch programs.