Today, the House Committee on Education and Labor is holding a hearing on the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act. This bill, which was introduced earlier in June, aims to improve access to quality meals served in and out of schools to children. The proposed legislation would also implement food safety standards and establish nutrition standards for all food served in schools, not just those associated with the federally subsidized school nutrition program.
Currently, student eligibility for federally subsidized school meals is determined by either direct certification using the Food Stamp program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (i.e. welfare) data available, or by paper application in which parents report their income to demonstrate that their child is eligible. This proposed act would improve access to school meals by allowing schools to use Medicaid data for direct certification in addition to food stamp and TANF data. Ed Money Watch has repeatedly supported this change which would increase the percent of students that are identified for eligibility via direct certification, eliminating some of the paper application burden on schools and parents.
Additionally, the proposed legislation would allow schools with high concentrations of poverty to eliminate paper applications entirely and use census data to determine average eligibility for the program. For these schools, which would otherwise be distributing free or reduced lunches to 75 percent of their students or more, eliminating the paper application would significantly streamline the school meal process.
Federal reimbursement rates for subsidized meals are also a point of contention among stakeholders and the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act would make changes in this area as well. Currently, schools are reimbursed $2.68 for each free lunch served, $2.28 for each reduced price lunch served, and $0.25 for each full price meal served. This reimbursement rate is adjusted each year based on the Consumer Price Index for food served away from home in urban communities. The base reimbursement rate for the meal programs would be increased by six cents, the first time the base reimbursement rate has been increased in 30 years. This increase, though small, would better enable schools to comply with increased nutrition requirements and serve higher quality meals to children.
Perhaps most controversially, the bill would require all food sold in schools - including food in vending machines, sold after school hours, sold a la carte during school hours - to comply with the science-based nutrition standards connected with the school nutrition program. This change presents some problems for schools and school lunch programs that derive significant revenue from food sales made outside of the federally subsidized program like a la carte offerings and vending machines. In many cases, these schools rely on this revenue to keep their school lunch programs afloat. Requiring schools to revamp these offerings, potentially pushing them to offer less attractive selections, may put them on shaky financial ground.
In addition to these changes, the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act would increase funding for nutrition education, establish more community and school gardens, improve school food safety mechanisms and training, and make sure that more students get continuous meal service during the summer as well as during the school year.
While the bill’s supporters are touting the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act as bipartisan, only one of the 30 cosponsors is Republican. This lack of Republican support could spell trouble for the bill in the House, which represents a significant increase in spending on child nutrition programs. The Senate has also presented a similar piece of legislation, titled the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which included some offsets for the increased cost of the program. This bill, presented by Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), has no cosponsors and has been reported out of committee. Check back with Ed Money Watch for more updates on this process.