Breaking Congressional gridlock to feed the kids
© Getty Images

For those of us interested in policy solutions to serious challenges facing Americans, these past few months have been discouraging. The combination of a crazy presidential race and long-standing political polarization has brought Congress almost to a standstill. Despite this environment, encouraging signs of progress can be found in at least one legislative initiative underway on the Hill. A few members of Congress and their staffs are undertaking a diligent effort to make improvements in an important area of antipoverty policy: child nutrition assistance, including the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, as well as summer and afterschool food programs.

When I was a social services commissioner in New York City, I played a role in administering these critical elements of the safety net. When the National Commission on Hunger (of which I was a co-chair) toured the country, I again saw firsthand the value of the child nutrition programs in reducing hunger, improving academic performance, and helping children develop. However, these programs also have flaws that call for incremental improvements. To his credit, Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) appears to recognize many of these problems and has put forward the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act (H.R. 5003) to address them.

In the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), low-income children are able to receive meals while school is out by going to a centralized, supervised location. Because it is difficult for many children to get to centralized locations during the summer, one of the unanimous recommendations of the Hunger Commission was to help children in poor rural areas. And in H.R. 5003, in states that opt-in, a provision allows service providers to be reimbursed through SFSP for meals they provide off-site in rural areas or low-income areas without access to a centralized site. This gives states and localities more flexibility to meet the unique needs of their populations.

Importantly, the bill also strengthens the summer program’s congregate feeding approach by requiring states to prioritize the applications of service providers who offer an educational activity for participating children if they are in areas where multiple providers are competing to provide summer meals. This is important because many of the children served food need the exposure to educational activities as much (or more) than they need the summer meals.

The Hunger Commission report encouraged pilot programs to test new ideas, as well as increased involvement from private groups to address these important issues. The Rokita bill encourages both by proposing that summer meal programs run by private businesses be allowed in areas where there is no meal service.

The bill contains other interesting ideas in need of careful consideration which were not taken up by the Hunger Commission. And in some places, it has notable differences with the bipartisan bill that came out of the Senate Agriculture Committee. For instance, the Senate bill allows states to expand the Summer EBT program (which provides a debit card to be used for food during the summer months in place of congregate feeding sites) in rural or poor areas with limited access to the summer program. Meanwhile, the House bill opts for a continuation of the random trials already being operated in a variety of states.

Both House and Senate bills wisely allow for the expansion of summer EBT only through the WIC program which restricts food choices to healthy products in a way that SNAP does not. A recent USDA backed study found that the WIC option had better results when it came to healthy eating outcomes than the SNAP option.

In the School Lunch program, both bills alter nutritional requirements and add stricter verification processes to reduce fraud and abuse. But the House bill tightens the Community Eligibility Provision in the program, which currently provides school-wide free lunches for schools where 40% or more of the enrolled students qualify for free meals (the House bill raises the threshold to 60%). While there has been pushback by Democrats who worry that eligible children will not be able to access the program, facts show that the difficulty of applying for the program has been exaggerated.

In New York City, online applications were allowed, and an automated computer match between the SNAP agency and the school system was developed to allow all children in households receiving SNAP benefits to automatically become eligible for free school meals. In recent years, all states are required to do the same at least three times a year. In 2013-14, 87 % of school age SNAP participants were directly certified for free meals. This extends the reach of the school meal program without making every student -- such as those who do not meet the income criteria -- eligible for a free lunch.

These bills are close enough to hope that an agreement to fix key problems in crucial programs can soon be reached. It is encouraging to see lawmakers working together to make the recommendations of the National Commission on Hunger a reality.

Robert Doar is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Earlier he served as commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration and commissioner of social services for the state of New York.