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Published in Print: March 31, 2004, as House OKs School Lunch Reauthorization

House OKs School Lunch Reauthorization

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Lawmakers chowed down on child-nutrition proposals last week, as the House of Representatives passed a $16 billion reauthorization plan by a vote of 419-5.

The House action on the Child Nutrition Improvement and Integrity Act includes approval of the bill’s main course, the $6.6 billion National School Lunch Program.

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View the accompanying table, "New Menu."

A dispute over how to strengthen the certification procedure for free and reduced-price lunches appears to have been settled by striking a balance between better scrutiny and simplified enrollment. Last year, the Bush administration said it wanted to significantly tighten eligibility checks on the lunch program, which fullly or partially subsidizes almost 27 million eligible children nationwide. Critics had argued that more stringent checks could scare off many hungry and deserving students who participate in the program.

The bill, passed by the House on March 24 after receiving unanimous approval from the House Education and the Workforce Committee earlier this month, would reauthorize the nutrition programs until 2008.

Included in the measure is a provision to help ensure that only those children who are eligible are being served by the program, said Barry Sackin, a vice president of the American School Food Service Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

The bill would require schools to determine which families were receiving food stamps and to automatically certify and notify students from those families that they were eligible for free or reduced-priced meals.

"We’re very pleased," Mr. Sackin said. "It’s a balanced response to the concerns about integrity."

The House is further along in the reauthorization process than the Senate is.

New Protections

The House bill calls for school lunch certification to be valid for one year. In the past, small changes in family income levels could disqualify students from the program, sometimes just for a month or two. Family members are sometimes forced to redo paperwork several times a year.

Under the new plan, students would only have to prove they were qualified when they signed up for the program—a change that supporters say would also reduce paperwork and administrative costs.

Only 3 percent of applications would be audited, as is currently required, but such audits would be aimed at error-prone applications and those close to the cutoff levels for both free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches.

In addition, the bill would continue a program that helps more children of military families qualify for the program by not requiring parents in the armed forces who live in private housing to include military housing allowances in their income calculations.

Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, currently $23,920 for a family of four, are eligible for free meals. Those with family incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level, currently $34,040, qualify for reduced-price meals.

Another provision, aimed at reducing the stigma for students who receive meal assistance, is one that encourages the use of new technology, such as an automated meal-card system, to keep students’ financial status confidential.

Ellen Teller, the director of government affairs for the Food Research and Action Center, based in Washington, said her organization was pleased with the way the House education committee dealt with eligibility concerns.

"We were very, very concerned about increases in verification that would result in thousands of eligible children being kicked off the program," she said. "Not only did they not go off that route, they also included in [the bill] protections … to ensure that vulnerable populations will not be adversely affected."

A Menu of Programs

The Senate has been working on its own version of a child- nutrition bill, which is awaiting action in the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee.

But senators faced a March 31 expiration date for the nutrition programs, which were slated to be reauthorized last year until Congress extended them until the end of March. Keith M. Williams, a spokesman for the Senate committee, said he expected another extension, until the end of June, to be approved soon.

Though the lunch program is the biggest portion of the nutrition bill, the measure also covers several other programs: school breakfasts; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC; child- and adult-care food; after-school snacks; and summer food service.

The House bill would permanently authorize for-profit child-care centers to participate in the Child and Adult Care Food Program if at least 25 percent of the children would be eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

In addition, the House bill addresses some concerns about childhood obesity. It would require school districts, by 2006, to have school wellness programs in place that laid out goals for nutrition education, physical activity, and nutrition guidelines for foods available on school campuses during the day.

The legislation places "special emphasis on ensuring children are encouraged to make healthy choices," said Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House education committee.

Vol. 23, Issue 29, Pages 24,28

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