Three million Americans could lose access to federal food assistance programs under new rules proposed by the Trump administration, including thousands of residents in Santa Clara County.
The changes, proposed in July and still receiving public comments, would impose restrictions on eligibility to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. While allowances are currently made for families earning more than 130% of the federal poverty level -- or $32,640 in annual income for a family of four -- the new rules would make that cut off in flexible.
The new rules would also prevent cross-qualification for children to receive free and reduced-price meals at school, which would take an estimated 2,000 off school meal benefits in Santa Clara County.
A growing number of local elected officials and nonprofit leaders have denounced the proposed changes in recent weeks, arguing that the new rules would create more red tape and paperwork while harming people who can't afford food in the Bay Area.
"We're very concerned about this rule change," said Tracy Weatherby, vice president of strategy and advocacy for Second Harvest of Silicon Valley. "This attempt to choke off some of these nutrition benefits is really difficult for us to see."
Currently, SNAP's benefits are available to families making more than 130% of the federal poverty level through what's called categorical eligibility. This allows states, including California, to screen clients who make up to 200% of the poverty level and grant food benefits to families who spent a large portion of their income on housing and child care expenses.
SNAP's framework also allows families to cross qualify for assistance, meaning those who receive benefits are also automatically enrolled in free and reduced-price meal programs at schools.
Under the proposed changes, 130% of the poverty level will be a hard cutoff for SNAP, and families must file separately to qualify for school meals. Estimates from Second Harvest and Santa Clara County indicate that a total of 7,000 people in the county would lose benefits, including 1,850 seniors and 2,850 children.
In the Bay Area, families making up to 200% of the federal poverty level — about $50,000 — still struggle to afford groceries each month, Weatherby said. She decried the Trump administration's stated goal of removing 3 million people from food stamps.
"It's literally their goal to get people off of nutritional benefit programs," Weatherby said. "We don't understand how that helps people get on their feet and thrive and be helpful members of the community.
"Even though we don't have a super high unemployment rate, it's hard for people to get by here. They may need to come to us that last week of the month so they can pay the rent," she said.
For families that remain eligible, the rule changes will mean the "additional administrative burdens" for applying for state and federal assistance programs separately, Weatherby said. County officials say it will also be more expensive and take longer to process more applications for CalWorks and CalFresh, California's implementation of SNAP., delaying access to food for eligible families.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to oppose the changes on Sept. 10. Last month, Mountain View Whisman School District's board of trustees took a similar, unanimous stance in opposition on Aug. 22.
"I don't think there should be impediments to a student's ability to receive a free or reduced (price) lunch if the family needs assistance," said trustee Laura Blakely shortly before the vote. "Kids can't learn when they're hungry."
Along with cracking down on eligibility for the free food program, the Trump administration released a detailed proposal last month on how it would expand the definition of "public charge," which would make it more difficult for immigrant families reliant on public assistance to gain permanent status or citizenship.
Many forms of government assistance would remain available to families — particularly those with children who are U.S. citizens. But advocates argue that the proposed rules have scared families away from using subsidized food, health care and other programs.
Nicole Fargo Nosich, associate director of Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos, said consequences have already been felt: Children who are born in the country aren't getting benefits they are entitled to because their parents are afraid, either because they are undocumented or in the process of getting citizenship.
"Just the very mention of passing a policy like this just makes it so people who should be getting the service just end up refusing to enroll out of fear, which ends up hurting them," Nosich said.
Community Services Agency, which offers food pantry services, may have an even more important role to play in feeding local residents if the U.S. Department of Agriculture moves forward with the rule changes. Unlike SNAP benefits, which are based on the federal poverty level and are difficult to attain in the Bay Area, Community Services Agency and other nonprofits grant food access based on the higher area median income, Nosich said. These agencies would then see more people coming in seeking assistance.