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Child nutrition bill clears House Education Committee, yet raises major concerns

By Erik Peterson

On May 18, 2016, the House Education and the Workforce Committee, chaired by Rep. John Kline (R-MN), approved H.R. 5003, the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016. Introduced by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), the legislation reauthorizes and reforms federal child nutrition programs. The bill passed the committee by a partisan vote of 20 to 14. The bill would reauthorize the federal child nutrition programs, including the Child and Adult Food Care Food Program (CACFP) At-Risk Afterschool Meals program and the Summer Food Service Program; however, many of the proposed changes could result in children no longer being able to access the nutritious meals they need to learn and be healthy.

Among the general provisions in the bill of major concern to afterschool and child nutrition advocates:

  • Failing to address shortfalls in the summer food program (especially from an out-of-school time perspective). The streamlining provision in the bill does not allow nonprofit organizations and local government agencies (that are not schools) to operate the Summer Food Service Program year-round. Instead, sponsors receive the lower CACFP reimbursement rate, and fewer sites are eligible in order to qualify for streamlining. Rather than making it easier for providers to offer meals seamlessly throughout the calendar year, the proposed provision would result in fewer programs offering meals to children in need due to the limited eligibility and lower reimbursement rate. 
  • Significantly weakening the community eligibility provision (CEP). Community eligibility is a federal option in its second year of nationwide implementation that reduces administrative work and increases school lunch and breakfast access in high-poverty schools. The bill proposes to substantially reduce the number of high-poverty schools that are eligible to implement community eligibility, which would impact approximately 7,000 of the 18,000 schools currently participating in the program. 11,000 additional schools not currently participating would lose the option to implement community eligibility in future years.
  • Increasing verification requirements. The bill dramatically increases school meal application verification requirements in ways that inevitably would cause eligible students to lose access to free or reduced-price school meals. Under the proposal, the number of household applications to be verified would increase significantly for many school districts, creating paperwork burdens for schools and families. A disproportionate number of vulnerable families, such as those who are homeless, migrant, immigrant or have limited English proficiency, would fall through the cracks in the process and lose access to school meals even though they are eligible.
  • Block granting school meals. The legislation also includes a three state school meal block grant demonstration pilot to replace the School Breakfast, National School Lunch, Special Milk, and Team Nutrition programs. The funding would be capped and cannot exceed the amount a state received for the programs and administrative funding in fiscal year 2016. The funding for school breakfast and lunch is limited to the free and reduced-price reimbursements (eliminating about 29 cents per meal provided for other children) and takes away the additional six cents per lunch provided to schools in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 for meeting the new federal nutrition standards. The states would have broad discretion to: determine which children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals and how they are determined eligible; decide the time of year that meals are provided; and abandon the current nutrition standards (meals are only required to be “healthy”).

Varying bills lead to roadblock

In contrast, the Senate child nutrition reauthorization bill that passed the Senate Agriculture Committee earlier this year would streamline summer and afterschool meal coordination in a manner that would allow afterschool meal sites to choose to operate year-round through the Summer Food Service Program. This will allow sponsors to keep an adequate reimbursement rate, maintain eligibility, operate one program rather than two, and significantly reduce duplicative paperwork and confusing administrative rules protecting the new school meal nutrition standards that are improving our children’s health and the school nutrition environment. The Afterschool Alliance has strongly recommended such a provision.

With the House and Senate bills so different, prospects for a conferenced, compromise bill are bleak. The next step in the reauthorization process, however, is for the full House and Senate to take up and pass their versions of the child nutrition reauthorization legislation.

Tell Congress: hungry kids deserve unanimous support

You can voice your opinion on the House and Senate child nutrition bills to your members of Congress via our action center.

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