Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Food fight brewing over provision to school lunches that critics say could defund federal program

Republicans and Democrats are waging a food fight over school lunches. "The fight centers on a key a provision in the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016, introduced by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), that would create a pilot block grant program for nutrition assistance in three states," Lydia Wheeler reports for The Hill. Democrats and school groups argue that the bill "not only slashes school breakfast and lunch budgets that help feed low-income students, but also paves the way for the programs to be defunded altogether in the future. . . . Supporters have hailed the legislation as a way to provide states more autonomy over school meal programs now controlled by Washington bureaucrats."

"If the pilot program were approved, states that apply and were chosen to be in the program would be given a capped amount of money for child nutrition programs to use as they see fit," Wheeler writes. "The one requirement is that they provide at least one affordable meal a day." The "bill also states that a school district can only provide free lunches to all when the poverty rate for the student body is 60 percent or higher. That threshold is now set at 40 percent." Critics say that change alone "would end the program for 7,000 of the 18,000 schools currently participating and eliminate the option for another 11,000 schools that are eligible but not yet participating."

The School Nutrition Association "argues that once funding is reduced through block granting, a program becomes easier to eliminate," Wheeler writes. "The association argues that with block grants, schools in participating states would be cut off from two key funding streams—the 29-cent reimbursement rate for meals that students pay full price for, and the 6 cents schools receive per lunch if they meet the federal nutrition standards that First Lady Michelle Obama advocated for in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The cuts could result in losses of as much as $78 million in states like California, while Georgia could lose up to $30 million just from the loss of the 6 cents per lunch, according to the nutrition association's estimates."

In 2015, 22 million students received free or reduced lunches and 12 million received free or reduced breakfast under the federal meal programs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wheeler writes.

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