Clock Ticking on School Lunch Legislation
As the clock ticks down on the 111th Congress, child and health advocacy groups are lobbying furiously for lawmakers to reauthorize the nation’s school lunch program with an expansion that would provide free, healthy meals to tens of thousands of additional children and tackle the problem of childhood obesity.
One major hurdle was cleared this month when the House Education and Labor Committee passed HR 5504, the “Improving Nutrition for America’s Children’s Act.”
The $8 billion, 10-year package of legislation would expand access to free and reduced-priced school meals, expand summer feeding and other out-of-school meal programs, and boost the quality of school meals while increasing funding for nutrition education. The legislation passed 32-13.
In March, the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously passed a similar—though much less costly—bill, the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat and former superintendent of Denver Public Schools who serves on that committee, said the legislation is a priority.
But now, both bills must still be passed by their respective chambers and then be reconciled before the legislation can be signed into law. And with the August recess here and a dwindling number of days left for this Congress to act, advocates of the legislation fear it may not work its way to the top of the priority pile.
Or, as one Senate staffer noted, it’s a top priority, but there are a lot of other top priorities as well, and it’s hard for school lunches to edge out jobs and the economy for legislative time. Still, on Wednesday, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., head of the Senate Agriculture Committee, brought up the legislation on the Senate floor and requested at least eight hours to discuss the bill.
“No one is opposed,” said Kathy Underhill, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, an advocacy group promoting the legislation. Organizations like hers have been urging supporters to write and call their congressional representatives to keep up the pressure for action.
“The biggest enemy is apathy, and this really needs to be a priority,” Ms. Underhill said. “So right now, we’re just encouraging everybody to call. The policies enacted today will be written on the brains and bodies of the next generation.”
“You can have the best teachers in the best classrooms with the best training, but if you have a classroom full of hungry kids, none of that matters,” she added.
First lady Michelle Obama, an outspoken proponent of healthier school lunches and a crusader against childhood obesity, has added her voice in support, issuing a statement earlier this month urging the House and Senate to bring the bills to the floor and pass them without delay.
Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., serves on the House committee that passed the legislation and is optimistic about the chances for passage before the end of this legislative session.
“The chances of child nutrition reauthorization are very strong because there is widespread, bipartisan recognition that we cannot afford to further delay taking action on the interrelated problems of childhood hunger and obesity,” he said in an e-mail to Education News Colorado.
He noted that the House legislation received the support of three of the committee’s 18 Republican members.
“As in all legislative business, nothing is guaranteed, and in the case of child nutrition, time is of the essence as the programs expire at the end of September,” Rep. Polis said. “With a shrinking legislative calendar during an election year, we need to act fast, and I urge swift and decisive action as soon as we get back from the recess.”
Mr. Polis admitted that the cost of the House legislation is an issue. Unlike the $4.5 billion Senate version, with which Senate committee members identified available funding sources and offsets to cover the cost, the House has identified only $1 billion in offsets.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, has vowed to identify additional funding sources before the bill comes to a floor vote in the House. Rep. Polis said he was confident the House would find the money.
Both the Senate bill and the House bill authorize a number of changes to the nation’s school lunch program. Those changes fall into three categories: reducing childhood hunger, improving nutrition and addressing childhood obesity, and improving the efficiency and integrity of the programs.
In the first category, reducing childhood hunger, both bills seek to eliminate red tape and make sure children who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches are automatically enrolled in the program. Both would expand after-school snack programs as well.
In essence, they would turn “snacks” into full meals, meaning that some children would be provided with three nutritious meals a day at their school.
“If the after-school or supper program expanded to Colorado, that would be huge for our kids to be able to get that third meal,” Ms. Underhill said.
The legislation also would provide what Rep. Miller described as the first real increase in the reimbursement rate for school lunches in over 30 years.
While both bills would expand access to free and reduced-price meals, they differ in the size of that expansion. The House version would allow school districts to automatically provide free meals to students who are enrolled in Medicaid programs. That would mean almost 1 million low-income children would begin automatically receiving free meals for the first time without having to fill out additional paperwork.
The Senate bill would provide free meals to only about 115,000 additional children.
Similarly, the Senate bill would require the establishment of nutrition standards for all food sold in schools during the regular school days, while the House bill would expand that requirement to include any food sold in schools at any time, even after the end of the regular school day.
The House bill also would include a substantial investment—a half-cent per lunch served—in nutrition education activities in school districts. That provision came at Rep. Polis’ insistence, along with amendments to include a two-year Healthy School Meals pilot program, which would provide incentives for schools to offer vegetarian options and remove restrictions on non-dairy milk alternatives, and to add the establishment of professional standards for local food service directors, including minimum education, certification, and training requirements.
It’s difficult to say just what the impact of the legislation would be on individual schools, Ms. Underhill said.
“No one has mapped that out because the versions are so different,” she said. “But every piece of it is critical.”
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