Congress Takes a Step Back in Fight to Reduce Childhood Hunger

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Elliott-GluckDuring the last year, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has continuously voiced the importance of returning power to states and districts when it comes to making decisions about how best to provide students with a well-rounded school experience.

With this messaging in mind, it is troubling to see the committee’s proposed child nutrition reauthorization (CNR), which would not only make the jobs of school administrators exceedingly difficult in the years to come, but leave many children across the country without access to the healthy meals they need to grow and thrive in school.

Twenty percent of America’s children currently live in poverty and more than 15 million kids struggle with food insecurity throughout the year. The programs authorized under the CNR, including the National School Lunch Program; School Breakfast Program; Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; the Child and Adult Care Food Program and Summer Food Service Program help to ease the burden of poverty and food insecurity for many of these children every year. It is essential that Congress works to improve and expand these proven programs rather than put children at greater risk of hunger in the name of scaling back federal spending and attacking fraud.

The Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016, introduced by Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Indiana, threatens to do the exact opposite of what it intends. The bill proposes to alter the highly successful Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), restricting eligibility to schools with 60 percent of students directly certified for free and reduced-price lunch through anti-poverty programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Currently, schools with 40 percent of students certified through these programs are able to provide breakfast and lunch to all students, free of charge.

The proposed change to CEP will have a dramatic effect on high-poverty schools in almost every state. If the House bill is passed, an estimated 7,022 schools, serving more than 3 million students, that now use CEP and an additional 11,647 that qualify but have not implemented CEP, will be forced to reinstate administratively burdensome applications and monitoring for their meal programs.

[Related: Partnering with Schools Reduces Hunger Among School Kids and Families]

While some members of Congress may argue that this change is necessary to protect the integrity of the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, it will do nothing but overwhelm principals and superintendents already tasked with implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act. The data shows that schools with 40 to 60 percent of students who are automatically eligible for free and reduced price meals actually serve a student body that is between 64 to 96 percent eligible for the programs. Some of these students will inevitably lose access to the meals they deserve if the increase in CEP is enacted due to the red tape of the application process.

Unfortunately, the problems with the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 do not end with the changes it makes to the CEP. Rep. Rokita’s bill also makes changes to the verification process that schools must undertake to administer the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. Once again, this new provision will make the jobs of school administrators more difficult and increase the bureaucratic nature of successful hunger-fighting programs.

In addition to these new barriers to access for school meals, the House bill will also weaken the nutritional value of the food served in schools by excluding fundraisers and a la carte items from the nutrition standards introduced by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). Under the House bill, many of the improvements made under HHFKA could also be at risk with a new three- rather than five-year review of school nutrition standards that will now exclude scientists and health experts.

The Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 would be a dramatic step in the wrong direction for America’s children, and there are far too many kids suffering from hunger or at risk of food insecurity to make such a mistake. By passing the Every Student Succeeds Act, Congress showed that meaningful bipartisan children’s policy is still alive and well in Washington. We must take the same approach to a children’s nutrition bill by improving access to healthy foods for all kids, regardless of income, rather than making successful programs less nutritious and more complicated for families and administrators.

Elliott Gluck is the senior director of external relations and nutrition policy expert for First Focus, a bipartisan children’s advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions.

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