Today, the House Education and Labor Committee is marking up the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act, which reauthorizes funding for the federal school lunch program, as well as WIC and the child and adult care food program.
Funded at about $12 billion in the current year, the federal school lunch program is one of the largest federal funding streams for education, and the proposed legislation would make some significant changes, including streamlining bureaucratic and paperwork requirements to enroll children in high-poverty schools, expanding access to school lunch and out-of-school food programs, and improving nutritional and safety standards for school meals. To help cover the costs of improving nutritional quality in school lunch, the bill would also increase reimbursement rates for school lunches (currently less than $2.50 per lunch for free meals) for the first time in 30 years.
Improving school lunch has turned into quite the sexy issue, with first lady Michelle Obama making it a major priority; support from celebrity chefs like Rachel Ray, Jamie Oliver, and Tom Colicchio, who testified before the committee earlier this month and has a very smart blog post up on this; and even a recent Top Chef episode focused on school lunch (ok, I admit, I love me some Top Chef).
The glamor is all well and good, but it’s important to remember the distinctly unglamorous reality here: At a time of both increasing rates of children in extreme poverty and increasing child obesity, too many American kids aren’t getting enough or the right kinds of nutritious foods to support their healthy development, growth, and learning. And, in a cruel irony, food insecurity and lack of money for healthy food can actually increase risk of obesity, even while leaving children frequently hungry and malnourished when it comes to key minerals and vitamins. While parents have primary responsibility for their children’s healthy eating, better school meals are one policy lever to help address these issues—and to better support parents who seek to teach healthy eating habits to their kids, which current school lunches too often undermine.
On Thursday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee responsible for Labor, HHS, and Education will mark up that appropriations bill. The Labor-H bill always seems to attract controversy, and in light of the current edujobs debate, this year’s appropriations process for education could be interesting. In addition to the administration’s funding requests for RTT and i3, keep an eye on funding for Head Start and federal child care subsidies—both programs got a big funding boost in the stimulus, which the administration is seeking to make permanent. If that happens, that will mean dramatic funding increases in programs whose funding levels have stagnated for over a decade even as the number of young children—and young children in poverty who qualify for these programs—has grown. Senate subcommittee mark-up is scheduled for next week.
UPDATE: The House Education and Labor Committee passed the child nutrition legislation this morning; Chairman George Miller and child nutrition advocates are urging a full house vote before the August recess.
UPDATE 2: A summary table for the House Appropriations subcommittee mark-up of the Labor-HHS-Education bill is available on the Appropriations Committee’s website. The summary table includes limited detail on specific program funding levels, but from what’s there we can see that the bill would provide $14.9 billion for Title I grants to LEAs, $800 million for RTT, and $400 million for i3. The funding amounts for RTT and i3 are lower than the administration requested, but their inclusion in the bill increases the likelihood that these programs will continue after this year--we’ll see what the Senate subcommittee does on this score later this week. The bill would also increase Head Start and CCDBG funding, to help sustain ARRA funding increases for these programs. More analysis from EdWeek’s Alyson Klein here and from Early Ed Watch on the early childhood funding components here.
The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.