Child nutrition groups and Democrats in Congress say a proposal to offer blanket block grants to fund school meal programs in up to three states may threaten equity and lead to inadequate nutrition for low-income children who often rely on school food more than their wealthier peers.
The House plan to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which sets rules for school meals, would offer the block grants in exchange for lifting federal meal program rules in participating states. In exchange, the states, which would have to apply to participate in the block grant option, would have to offer at least one “affordable” meal a day. Supporters of the plan, including sponsor Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), say it would allow for flexibility at the state and local level and allow for innovative use of federal funds to feed students.
But anti-poverty groups, House Democrats, and the School Nutrition Association have vowed to fight the proposal, which is not included in the Senate’s Child Nutrition Act bill. Here’s why.
School Lunch Funds Would Be Limited Under Block Grants
Under block grants, participating states would receive a fixed pot of funding for school lunches and breakfasts on an annual basis. That differs from current funding methods, under which schools can receive additional funding throughout the year to cover the costs of changing circumstances, such as an influx of low-income students.
“A block grant would make federal spending more predictable and would allow states more freedom to design programs suited to local needs,” the Congressional Budget Office said in a 2015 analysis cited by the School Nutrition Association. “However, block grants that are smaller than the funding that current legislation would provide would probably eliminate access to nutrition programs for some children and reduce it for others. Such grants would also leave the programs unable to respond automatically to economic downturns.”
Participating States Would Miss Out on Some School Lunch Funding
Under the plan, block grants would be based on the total fiscal 2016 reimbursements participating states received for school lunches and breakfasts. Not included in that total? The six cents per lunch schools receive for complying with heightened federal nutrition standards and the 29 cents per meal served to students who do not qualify for free and reduced-price meals, the School Nutrition Association says. Those cuts could add up to serious shortfalls for nutrition programs that already operate on tight margins, advocates say.
A Lack of ‘Uniformity and Consistency’ in School Meals
“Block grants void federal rules that ensure the uniformity and consistency of school meal programs across the nation,” the School Nutrition Association says. “States could set their own rules on which children are eligible for free or reduced price meals, restricting access for low income children currently enrolled in the program. States could abandon all federal nutrition mandates, and under the proposed pilot, states would be required to only serve one ‘affordable’ meal a day to students, threatening recent national progress in expanding student access to healthy school breakfasts.”
So, while supporters of the House bill say it would save money and allow for innovation, opponents are circulating infographics like this one.
Related reading about school meals:
- Schools Weigh Expanding Free Meals to All Students
- School Meal Programs Extend Their Reach
- Poverty Data Signal Urgency for Schools
- Poverty Has Spread to the Suburbs (And to Suburban Schools)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.