Fight erupts in Congress over school lunch money

Fight erupts in Congress over school lunch money
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A vicious battle is being waged on Capitol Hill over legislation that would reauthorize federal funding for school meal programs.

Democrats and school groups argue the bill that Republicans are proposing 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.

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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.

It’s that three-state plan that has Democrats and schools groups up in arms.

“Even if this is for three states, this is the camel’s nose under the tent,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). “This demonstrates where they want to go. This demonstrates a broader effort to block grant the school meal program nationwide.”

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. The one requirement is that they provide at least one affordable meal a day.

Supporters have hailed the legislation as a way to provide states more autonomy over school meal programs now controlled by Washington bureaucrats.

“This whole program just oozes of contempt for the people at the state and local level like they are a bunch of goofs that don’t know how to make a meal, like they have to bury them under a bunch of paperwork,” Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) said in May during a committee markup. “We’re not defunding the program … we’d just keep the money what it was in the current fiscal year.”

Grothman proposed an amendment to block grant the programs in all 50 states, but it failed by a 25 to 9 vote.

The School Nutrition Association says Grothman’s proposal shows where Republicans are headed. It argues that once funding is reduced through block granting, a program becomes easier to eliminate.

“I’m not buying the argument that three states are better than 50; it’s like saying which of your 10 fingers do you want to cut off,” said Doug Davis, the nutrition association's public policy and legislation committee chair, who is the director of food service for schools in Burlington, Vt.

The association argues that under the block grant program, 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 ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaObama on social media: You’ve got to ‘think before you tweet’ MSNBC trolls Trump with video montage of Obama saying ‘Merry Christmas’ Overnight Regulation: USDA delays healthy school lunch requirements | Senate panel advances controversial environmental pick | Drone industry pushes to ease rules | Dem commish joins energy regulator MORE 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.

The Republican 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.

That change alone, DeLauro said, 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.

“This is devastating,” she said. “One in five kids in the U.S. live in a house where food is scarce. Hunger exists in each and every community whether represented by a Democrat or a Republican.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture data online states that 22 million students received free or reduced lunches under the federal meal programs in 2015, while 12 million students received free or reduced breakfast.

In an interview with The Hill last week, Rokita said money had to come from somewhere to increase the federal reimbursement rate for school breakfast by 2 cents in the 2017–2018 school year.

“By taking this tactic of going visceral on a three-state pilot program, they are putting these other reforms they want in terrific jeopardy,” he said.

Though DeLauro argued that money could have come from somewhere else like the crop insurance program, Rokita said he could only do so much as a chair on the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.

“What comes through my committee is going to be paid for, but I’m limited by my subject matter and I found it in my subject matter,” he said.

Rokita claims Democrats are using “scare tactics and misinformation” to characterize his proposal as a plan to eviscerate the school meals programs in the future.

“There are certain ones among us, like the critics of this bill, that think they can run people's lives better than those people,” he said. “To be clear … this is a three-state pilot program. The only way it gets greater is if you do another reauthorization and pass another law signed by the president.”

While Democrats have vowed to keep the bill from ever reaching the floor for a vote, Rokita said his goal is to get it to a conference with the Senate and come up with an agreement.