Senate Committee Approves Changes to After-school, Summer Meals

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Fresh vegetable cups prepared for the National School Lunch Program at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, Wednesday, October 19, 2011. The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service operating in public, nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.

 

WASHINGTON — Summer and after-school programs could more easily feed children under legislation approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee.

By voice vote, the committee approved the bipartisan Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act, which reauthorizes and modifies federal child nutrition programs. It won the support of a wide range of public health, agriculture and education groups.

The bill, which sets standards for summer meal and after-school programs, would streamline the administrative process that requires two applications for programs that operate during both the school year and the summer.

“It’s just one less headache [organizations] have to go through,” said Rachel Gwaltney, director of policy and partnerships at the National Summer Learning Association. “Especially if you’re a program expanding to summer, it makes the process much easier.”

The legislation also would create a pilot program in six states that would allow programs that offer a summer meal to provide three meals instead of two.

[Related: Child Care Costs Have Become Huge Burden to Families]

In addition, the bill adds two new options intended to expand access to nutritious food in the summer. The first would give eligible families $30 per month for each child through an electronic benefit transfer card to purchase food at qualifying retailers.

The second would allow summer meal programs to provide meals without requiring children to eat on site, a provision lawmakers said would be beneficial to rural and high-poverty communities without easy access to such programs.

The legislation “strengthens the existing program and provides relief from restrictive regulations that currently limits the ability of churches, food banks and other community organization to operate the program in the way best  suited to meet the needs at their local level,” said Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas.

The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said before the vote that only 18 percent of children who receive school meals also participate in summer meals.

“This bill takes important steps to expand summer meal sites and finds new ways to reach kids who are missing out on good nutrition all summer long,” she said.

As the legislation moves forward, Gwaltney said the association will stress to lawmakers the importance of limiting that provision to areas such as rural communities where summer meal programs truly are hard to access. In settings where children can access a site, there’s great value in offering meals on site because children also have the opportunity to participate in learning, enrichment and physical activities in a safe and supervised environment, she said.

Some of the most high-profile battles over the legislation have been about the nutrition standards school meals must meet under federal law, such as whole grain and sodium requirements.

House lawmakers have yet to release a companion measure to the Senate bill. The Education and Workforce Committee has jurisdiction over child nutrition programs in the House.

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