House Panel Approves School-Meal Block Grant

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After a bitter partisan debate, the House education committee voted last week to repeal the federal programs that provide meals at school for needy children and replace them with a block grant that sets no nutritional requirements and does not guarantee funding for all eligible children.

The Republican majority on the committee said the change would give states and school districts the flexibility to design and administer the programs as they see fit.

"We believe we've made the positive changes," Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who chairs the Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, said after the vote. "We are going to take away all of that auditing that comes from the federal level."

Committee Democrats--visibly shaken and angered--said after the vote that they saw only the specter of children going hungry. They blasted what they said was the dismantling of worthwhile meals programs that have been helping children effectively for a half-century.

The school-lunch program now serves about 25 million children a day, and the breakfast program serves 5.8 million children.

The proposed "welfare-reform consolidation act," HR 999, won approval of the education committee on a party-line vote of 23 to 17. Passage followed a marathon two-day markup of the measure, which would also create a separate child-care block grant. (See related story .)

Time and again, the Republican majority turned back attempts by Democrats to amend the bill to make it resemble more closely current services or regulations.

The measure will next be considered on the House floor, combined with other welfare-reform bills that fall under the jurisdiction of other committees. (See related story,(See Education Week, Feb. 22, 1995.)

After the vote, a committee member, Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., predicted that the Senate might not agree with the House provisions.

And if they were cleared by Congress, they would likely face a Presidential veto, based on remarks President Clinton made last week.

"Here's a program that isn't broke, that's done a world of good for millions and millions of children," Mr. Clinton said of the school-lunch program. "I think it would be a terrible mistake to put an end to it, to gut it, to undermine it."

Changes From 'Contract'

The bill passed last week differs from the provisions on nutrition contained in the House G.O.P.'s "Contract With America." Those proposals would have melded the funding for 10 federal food-assistance programs into one block grant. (See Education Week, Feb. 1, 1995.)

The committee bill, sponsored by Mr. Goodling, would create two child-nutrition block grants, one for school-related programs and one for those that help families.

The family-nutrition block grant would be used to provide food aid and counseling now offered under the current Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; meals for children at child-care centers; support for summer feeding programs run by nonprofit groups or local governments; and other such programs. Eighty percent of each state's funds would be earmarked for the services now provided through WIC.

The school-based-nutrition block grant would cover services provided by the school-lunch and -breakfast programs, as well as before- and after-school food programs, low-cost milk services, and summer programs run by schools. The bill would require that states use at least 80 percent of the money to provide free or low-cost meals or supplements to low-income children, but they could use as much as 20 percent of their grants for child-care and other social programs.

No more than 2 percent of the block grant could be used for administrative purposes.

Lacking 'Financial Security'

Republicans argued that the bill would authorize more total spending than is authorized for the current school-nutrition programs, and it would allow funding to increase by 4.5 percent per year. The bill authorizes $6.68 billion in fiscal 1996 for school-based nutrition, and the funding ceiling would rise to nearly $7.85 billion in 2000.

"We are not cutting anything," Mr. Goodling said. "We are giving more."

But Democrats argued that these increases would not be enough to maintain current services. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that this would require annual increases of closer to 5.2 percent.

In addition, while the current school-meals programs are entitlements, requiring Congress to appropriate enough money to serve all eligible low-income children, a block grant does not make any allowance for an increase in the demand for free and reduced-price lunches due to economic hard times or a natural disaster.

The Agriculture Department has estimated that overall funding for the school-based programs would amount to $309 million less than would be provided under current policy in fiscal 1996, and more than $2 billion less for the five-year period from 1996 to 2000.

The bill would also leave any nutritional standards for school meals up to the discretion of the states, effectively voiding the U.S.D.A.'s effort to tighten dietary standards for school meals. A Republican amendment adopted during the markup of the bill provided for the National Academy of Sciences to develop model standards the states could voluntarily use, sources said.

Another Republican amendment added a provision that would exclude illegal aliens from participating in the school-based programs. Legal aliens could still participate.

Gene White, a legislative coordinator for the American School Food Service Association, said that eliminating red tape is a worthy goal, but she bemoaned the bill's funding levels, which she said would not keep pace with inflation and growing demand for school meals.

The loss of entitlement status and the provision allowing states to spend 20 percent of the block grant on nonfood programs are also troubling, Ms. White said.

"You put all that together and there really isn't much financial security for the school boards," she said. "They would unquestionably be inclined to drop the program."

Hot Dogs And Potato Chips

Ms. White also criticized the bill's funding formula, which would divide money among states based essentially on each state's share of the national total spent on the nutrition programs the previous year. Over time, a growing portion of the allotment would be determined by how many meals the state served the year before.

This rule, combined with a lack of nutritional requirements, would encourage states to provide more meals of lower quality, Ms. White said.

"This would open the door, then, for the hot-dog and potato-chip lunch," she said.

Vol. 14, Issue 23

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