In early August, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a bill that would reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act. Now it is up to the House to pass the bill before the existing law expires on Thursday, September 30th. Although the Senate bill won strong bi-partisan support, things are not going so smoothly in the House mostly because of competing priorities for programs that address nutrition and hunger.
Currently, the Child Nutrition Act provides funding for school meal and after school food programs, benefits for low-income women and infants, and adult feeding programs. Most of this funding is distributed to states and school districts based on per student reimbursement rates.
The bill the Senate passed makes several changes to the existing Child Nutrition Act, particularly the School Nutrition Program. Perhaps most importantly, it compels the Secretary of Agriculture to implement new nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts. Under the law, schools that provide lunches that comply with these new standards will receive an increased reimbursement rate for every meal served. Additionally, the law would allow schools to directly certify students for free or reduced price meals using Medicaid data in addition to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and food stamp data and would create a performance award program for states that reach benchmarks for direct certification.
The new nutrition standards will provide students with more healthful meals. The changes to direct certification will increase the number of students that receive free or reduced price lunches while also decreasing paper burden on schools. These changes are popular with many child nutrition organizations and other public policy organizations that have been seeking to improve the quality of federally-subsidized school meals and the bureaucracy surrounding enrolling students in the meal program.
In total, programmatic changes in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act would increase the cost of the School Nutrition Program by $4.5 billion over ten years. The Senate found $2.2 billion in offsets for this additional spending by eliminating increased American Reinvestment and Recovery Act Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP - formerly known as the food stamp program) in 2013 rather than 2014, as set in previous legislation.
Unsurprisingly, this change is unpopular with anti-hunger advocates who believe that ending the increased SNAP benefits in 2013 will leave needy families without enough money for food. And this is not the first time that funding for SNAP benefits from ARRA have been pilfered for other programs.
The $10 billion Education Jobs Fund and $16.1 billion Medicaid reimbursement increase, which Congress passed in mid-August, was also made possible by offsets from the SNAP benefits increase in ARRA. Specifically, Congress created $11.9 billion in offsets by setting a 2014 end date for the ARRA SNAP benefits increase. While this offset was also unpopular with anti-hunger advocates, it was less controversial because the ARRA SNAP benefits increase was originally intended to end in 2014 anyway.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided funds to increase the value of SNAP benefits until annual inflation adjustments to SNAP reached ARRA levels – believed at the time to be in 2014. But low levels of food cost inflation in 2009 and 2010 slowed down that timeline, meaning that SNAP adjustments wouldn’t meet ARRA levels until 2018. Although the 2014 deadline for the ARRA funds meant that SNAP benefits would likely drop from 2014 to 2018, the perceived urgency of the Education Jobs Fund and Medicaid increase made the offset politically viable.
Will advocates of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act be able to justify these additional cuts to the ARRA SNAP benefit increase and pass the bill before the current law expires? Or will the House delay a vote further to try to find alternative offsets for the improved School Nutrition program before they pass the bill? Check back with Ed Money Watch for updates.