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Published in Print: July 14, 2004, as Bush Signs School Lunch Reauthorization

Bush Signs School Lunch Reauthorization

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Federal child-nutrition programs have a new focus on healthy eating habits and fighting obesity under a measure signed into law recently by President Bush.

The $16 billion reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which includes the National School Lunch Program, along with the breakfast and summer food programs and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, was signed June 30 after getting bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.

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View the accompanying table, "Appetite for Change."

The new law expands several pilot programs and creates new ones that focus on wholesome nutrition and child wellness. It will expand an existing fresh-fruit and -vegetable pilot program from five states to eight states and three American Indian reservations, giving priority to low-income areas. The program provides free produce such as apples, bananas, and raisins throughout the day as snacks for children.

The measure also requires schools to have local wellness plans in place by 2006 to promote nutrition education and increased physical activity. Though the plans will be generated locally, federal technical support will be available.

"It is my hope that these wellness policies will serve as a catalyst for encouraging a larger dialogue on how to combat obesity," said Rep. Michael N. Castle in a statement. The Delaware Republican and House Education Reform Subcommittee chairman was the author of the House version of the bill.

Burden or Benefit?

But at least one education group says the expansions of the pilot programs come at the expense of the students who receive free and reduced-price lunches through the $6.6 billion school lunch program, which has 27 million eligible children nationwide and is the largest of the programs included in the new law.

Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, currently $24,505 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 $34,873, qualify for reduced-price meals.

"This bill provides no real significant, additional benefits for schools," said Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools. "There’s a lot of burden and very little benefit here."

The Washington-based council, which represents the nation’s large urban school districts, is most concerned about new requirements for verifying the income of families of students who receive subsidized lunches. In the past, districts could choose from at least two options for verifying who should receive lunch aid. Unless schools have low error rates, they’re now required to audit 3 percent of students annually whose family income levels hover near the cutoff line for free or reduced-priced meals.

That provision will require some schools to change the way they audit their lunch-program participation rolls, he said, noting that children whose parents don’t respond when districts request proof of income will be dropped.

"You wind up dropping a bunch of kids from services, the vast majority of which are eligible but have nonresponsive parents," Mr. Simering said.

Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, said that his group supported the bill, but that lawmakers sought to thin the eligibility lists for subsidized lunches to save money to expand other projects, including those which focused on health and wellness.

But he lauded such provisions as the mandatory direct certification of students whose families participate in other federal programs such as food stamps. Also, the law cuts paperwork by allowing school lunch certifications to stand for a full year, instead of forcing districts to recertify students as income levels fluctuate.

"Those things are real improvements," Mr. Hunter said.

Summer Meals

In addition, supporters of the Summer Food Program are lauding the expansion of a pilot program that makes it easier to serve food to children during the school break months. The Lugar pilot program, named for Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., currently gives reduced paperwork and more direct reimbursement privileges to summer food centers in 13 states and the District of Columbia. The new law expands that program to six new states and allows nonprofit organizations such as food banks to participate as well.

"This really changes the environment for us," said Douglas L. O’Brien, the vice president for public policy and research for Chicago-based America’s Second Harvest, a national hunger-relief charity. "There’s an enormous benefit."

The bill passed the House March 24 on a vote of 419-5. It passed by voice vote in the Senate on June 23. The support was surprising in an election year, said Barry Sackin, the staff vice president for public policy for the American School Food Service Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

Notably absent from the discussions over the bill was a Bush administration proposal to significantly tighten eligibility checks for the school lunch program. Critics had argued that more stringent checks could cause some qualified students to leave the program.

"The reality is that we were successful in making the case that we can address integrity in a positive way," Mr. Sackin said.

Vol. 23, Issue 42, Pages 29,32

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