By Christy Avery
The bell rings, and bellies rumble. Students rush excitedly out of class to the cafeteria, looking forward to a hot lunch and a break to refuel and chat with friends. Later, they might order pizza, get fast food, or cook with their families. Each evening, everyone is able to go to bed with a full stomach.
For many people across America, this is the reality; a second thought is never given to whether or not they will enjoy three meals that day. But for some financially-insecure families, food—whether served at school or at home—is not as easy to come by.
Many families across America live in poverty: 39.7 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 estimate. There are many reasons for this, such as high costs of living, low income, medical expenses, unemployment, and lack of benefits. Making ends meet can be difficult for households, and basic needs such as food can be increasingly expensive.
Because of this, governments and schools offer assistance. The most well-known and widely-used programs are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—otherwise known as food stamps—and the National School Lunch Program. These services offer approved households with benefits, such as an EBT card with money that families can use to buy food, or free or reduced school meals to keep children who live in struggling households from going hungry as they get their education.
Assistance programs support a multitude of people each year; in 2018 alone, SNAP served 40 million Americans (according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities), and the National School Lunch Program provided free/reduced meals to 29.7 million children daily, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Although crucial, these services can be difficult to navigate. The Bagpiper has compiled separate guides on how to use each.
SNAP: A Guide on How to Receive Government Assistance
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 1 in 10 Indiana residents receive SNAP each year. But how do families in need begin the process of receiving funds, and what happens throughout?
First, families need to know if they are eligible to receive SNAP. Benefits are not freely given to anyone; hopeful recipients must meet certain guidelines in order to be approved.
To be eligible, households must usually:
-have a gross monthly income at or below 130% of the poverty line
-have no more than $2,500 in assets. Assets are resources that can be used to purchase food, such as extra money in bank accounts or savings. However, if a household includes an elderly or disabled person, assets may be up to $3,500
Applicants should also know that:
If an adult applicant is unemployed, childless and able-bodied, they can still receive SNAP benefits—however, these benefits are normally limited to a period of 3 months every 3 years.
After reviewing eligibility guidelines, there are important items that must be prepared before an application can be filled out.
Applicants will need:
-The names, dates of birth, citizenship status and Social Security numbers of everyone in the home. Note that citizenship status does not normally factor into whether someone is eligible or not.
-Income received by each person in the household
-Proof of shelter expenses such as a recent rent receipt or utility bill
-(if applicable) Proof of child support
-(if applicable) Proof of medical expenses not covered by insurance, such as prescriptions, co-payments or premiums for the elderly or disabled
Where can applications be found?
Applications can be found in a variety of places. The most common method is to apply online at fssabenefits.org, but those without computer access or who prefer a paper copy can also:
-print an application at fssabenefits.org
-call Indiana Family and Social Services at 800-403-0864
-visit their local Division of Family Resources office
-Request to have an application mailed to their home
Applications can be turned in online, by mail or at a local SNAP office. Depending on the state, faxed or emailed applications may be accepted.
What happens after applying?
After receiving an application, the state agency or SNAP office will process it. This can take up to 30 days.
Within that month, applicants will participate in another important step: an eligibility interview. This is completed over the phone or in person; applicants can usually choose. The purpose of this interview is to further examine each individual or household’s case and to verify information. Applicants are typically asked about their household, income status, and “other pertinent information needed to determine eligibility” (in.gov).
Once the interview is completed, hopeful applicants will receive notification by mail regarding their eligibility status and whether they receive benefits or not.
What if an applicant is accepted?
If accepted, participants in the SNAP program will receive benefits within the 30 days from the date they turned the application in. EBT cards, PIN numbers, and other important information will be mailed.
What if an applicant is not approved, but feel they should be?
An appeal can be made by contacting the local office or agency where the application was submitted.
How is SNAP used?
Food stamps are no longer paper coupons; today, money is loaded onto an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. These cards work like debit cards and can be used at any grocery store, as well as some farmers’ markets and other establishments. Benefits are refilled automatically each month.
Be aware that EBT cards can only be used to purchase food, and that they cannot be used to purchase certain items such as:
-any prepared food intended for immediate, on-premise consumption (such as fast food).
How much assistance will households receive?
Amounts of benefits are based on level of need. How much a household or individual gets will depend on household size, income and other factors. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2017 the average SNAP household received about $254 per month. The average recipient or individual received about $126. In both cases, this averages out to approximately $1.40 per person per meal.
SNAP can be the difference between healthy and hungry. However, even with the extra assistance, making ends meet and putting food on the table can be difficult.
Here are some tips to stretch SNAP dollars and make the most out of benefits:
-compare prices of items at different stores
-consider making loose meal plans
-buy in bulk when possible
-consider using coupons to lower shopping costs
-stock up on canned foods, beans, lentils, and other filling, cheap foods that provide multiple servings in one unit
National School Lunch Program: How Children Can Receive Free or Reduced Lunches
Proper nutrition is essential to education. At most schools, breakfast and lunch are served, making it easy for students to stay full throughout the day. However, these meals cost, and many families struggle to purchase them as the cost of living adds up. Millions of children and families benefit from free or reduced breakfasts/lunches each year due to the National School Lunch Program.
There are a couple of ways children can be eligible. Children can eat at a lower price or free if:
-household income is within the limits on the Federal Income Guidelines -Children can also be approved through “Direct Certification.” This means that families who already receive benefits from programs such as SNAP or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANP) are automatically eligible for free meals. School districts use information from the state Social Security department to certify students for Direct Certification.
If a child is pre-approved, a letter will be mailed to the home at the start of the school year.
If not pre-approved, an application must be filled out. Applications are now primarily online. For New Albany-Floyd County students, they can be found at NAFCSnutrition.com; applications and information for other school districts can be found on the school corporation’s site.
Before filling out the application, families will need:
-gross income (income received before taxes) for ALL household members, even if non-related. Include income earned by children such as child support.
-if receiving assistance from a government program, the household’s case number will be needed
-a pen with black ink; pencil is not permitted
-Social Security numbers of all children and adults
It is important to fill out the application thoroughly. Households only need to fill out one application for all children in the home.
After sending in the application, households will be notified of their children’s status by mail. Eligibility guidelines change each year, so unless a household is pre-approved, an application must be filled out each school year.
After approval, what are the benefits?
Those receiving free meals can get a standard breakfast and lunch with no cost, every day.
Those receiving reduced meals will be charged 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch. While meal prices vary by state and school, reduced meal prices are equal across the nation.
In many school districts, including NAFCS, the benefit of receiving free or reduced meals extends beyond the lunchroom. The cost of education also does. Textbook expenses are billed to families each year, and are often hundreds of dollars.
Floyd Central bookkeeper Amy Romines said that even if a family can afford to pay for meals, “where people get into trouble is book rental. They might get hammered with a three hundred dollar bill. With someone living on low wages, that’s gonna be almost insurmountable.”
However, Romines said that if someone qualifies for free/reduced lunches in the state of Indiana, they also receive reduced textbook costs.
“If they’re having issues with one or the other [lunches or textbooks], they’re usually eligible for [assistance with] the other.”
For more information on how to receive textbook assistance, contact the school.