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Up to 50,000 students in West Virginia’s public schools could lose automatic eligibility for free lunches and breakfasts if a proposed change to federal food stamp benefits is enacted.

The administration needs to step back and take another look at this.

According to a recent article in The Charleston Gazette-Mail, nearly 1 million children nationwide would no longer be directly certified for free school meals based on their participation in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly and commonly known as food stamps.

In July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would rein in food stamp access by removing automatic enrollment in SNAP if a person had already applied for other state-run benefit programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Children automatically qualify for free lunches if their families receive SNAP benefits.

Three months ago, how the proposed policy changes would affect children’s access to school meals was unclear. Earlier this month, the federal government announced the change would mean nearly 1 million children nationwide would no longer be directly certified for free school meals based on their participation in SNAP.

West Virginia education and health officials in the past few weeks have determined 120,000 West Virginia households, which is likely up to 50,000 students, could lose automatic eligibility to free school meals.

In the current school year, 43 of the state’s 55 county school systems provide free meals to all students. That number could drop significantly if the proposed change goes through.

This change isn’t final. There is a short period to receive public comment.

This a complex issue, thanks to the amount of bureaucratic jargon and red tape that is involved. Let’s boil it down to a simple question: What’s wrong with providing free meals to poor children?

Last week the Gazette-Mail also reported West Virginia’s fourth-grade and eighth-grade students still score below the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

Hungry children don’t learn as much as well-fed ones do. If we want to help them, it makes little sense to cut off part of their daily food supply.

Free meals for all doesn’t benefit only lower-income students. It also helps those whose families are just above the line for SNAP assistance or who are unable to navigate the bureaucratic maze the comes with applying for government benefits.

An added benefit to having free lunches for all is the end of lunch shaming. That’s when a child is denied lunch because his or her parents are delinquent on paying their lunch bills. It happens from time to time across the United States. It’s rare, but it’s still cruel. Even before local policies of free lunches for all, it didn’t happen here.

But it could if the administration’s proposed rules go into effect.

There remains a great deal of uncertainty about exactly what the impact would be on school children in West Virginia in particular or in Appalachia in general.

Considering the size of the federal budget deficit and the overall national debt, cracking down on fraud and waste is necessary. But is cutting back on a program that benefits children and helps them learn really where it should start?