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Cutting Back On Free Lunch Might Cost Us

August 24, 2016
One of my responsibilities interning for a Congressman this summer is helping manage the mail received from constituents. Their concerns can range from comments about the government as a whole to detailed feelings about a singular piece of legislation. During my first few weeks, I worked to sort through the hundreds of pieces of mail we receive weekly, and in doing so, I repeatedly found myself seeing subject lines with the words “Oppose H.R. 5003.”

by Kristen Ierardi, C’18

H.R. 5003 is otherwise known as the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016. How would it “improve” the school lunch program that is essential to the nourishment and growth of so many children? Why were so many groups coming out against it if it is an improvement?

Since the 79th Congress recognized the importance of school lunch in 1946 with the National School Lunch Act, the federal program has continued to grow and change based on the needs of children nationwide. In 2016, school provided breakfast and lunch have become an essential part of a child’s growth and development. This is especially true for low income families, who often rely on school lunch programs to provide their children with what may be their only balanced meal of the day. Beyond this, a healthy meal has shown extremely positive effects on a child’s behavior and ability to learn in school.

The Improving Child Nutrition Act of 2016 would amend the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. The 2010 Act, which is a part of the many initiatives First Lady Michelle Obama has promoted in her fight against childhood obesity, made significant changes to the school lunch program for the first time in over thirty years. Of the major changes implemented with the passing of the 2010 bill, one of the most notable is the community eligibility provision.

According to the Food Research and Action center, community eligibility is a system for schools with high concentrations of low-income children to provide breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students. By offering free meals to every student, regardless of their economic background, the program reduces administrative paperwork for schools and allows them to focus on providing healthy meals so all students can learn and thrive. Additionally, it increases the number of students participating by removing stigma, maximizes federal reimbursements, and makes it easier to implement innovative service models like Breakfast in the Classroom. [1]

Made available to high-poverty schools nationwide in school year 2014-2015, community eligibility has grown to impact 8.5 million students who now can receive two healthy school meals at no charge. The eligibility threshold under the 2010 Act was set at forty percent, meaning that, if forty percent of students would qualify for free meals, community eligibility may be utilized. The Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act would amend this threshold from forty to sixty percent.

This change could dramatically impact the number of schools that qualify for the community eligibility program. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 7,022 schools nationwide that have adopted community eligibility fall at or above 40 percent but below 60 percent. [2] This new amendment proposed in H.R. 5003, therefore, would drastically change the community eligibility program and force many schools to restructure their newly adopted and widely successful meal systems.

Over 120 national groups and hundreds of state groups have signed onto or issued statements opposing the new legislation, including the School Nutrition Association (SNA), American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and the Food Research & Action Center. [3] These groups assert that in addition to harming the availability and ease with which low income students can receive meals, the new legislation’s relaxed nutrition standards will be harmful to children’s health. CSPI also asserted in a statement that the new legislation would return junk food to U.S. schools.

“The bill would weaken the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, allowing schools to substitute chips, sugary fruit snacks and trail mix for the fresh fruit and vegetables they now get as snacks through the program, and make it more difficult for low-income students to receive free meals,” CSPI stated. [4]

On the other hand, those in favor of the bill highlight the economic benefits of these amendments. The Congressional Budget Office stated that enacting this legislation would decrease direct spending by $128 million over the 2017-2021 period and by $59 million over the 2017-2026 period for the child nutrition programs. Additionally, the bill would increase revenues by $8 million over the same period. [5] These savings, in turn, could be used for other child nutrition programs. As for the amendments to nutritional standards, supporters say this will result in children eating food they would prefer to eat and enjoy more. [6]

Yes, the Improving Child Nutrition and Education act would cut costs and allow for more private enterprises to get involved with school nutrition programs. As one clause states, it would even bring back the much loved “bake sale” that has been banned at many schools through previous legislation. [7] These gains, however, come at a serious cost to low income children nationwide.

Community eligibility and strict nutritional guidelines, though only recently implemented, have already begun to show dramatic gains for schools and low income communities. It may seem hard to justify a program that provides free lunch to all when some could pay. That extra cost, however, enables schools to deliver a critical benefit that can have lasting positive effects for children in high-poverty neighborhoods. Supporting such legislation, and therefore limiting eligibility for this program, would impose burdens on schools already struggling to educate children with limited resources and community support.

The Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act would do just the opposite of what its name suggests. This bill would further disadvantage children who lack the resources and funds for nutritional meals, and negatively impact their growth, health, and education for a lifetime.

References

  [1] http://frac.org/federal-foodnutrition-programs/national-school-lunch-program/community-eligibility/

  [2] http://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/house-bill-restricting-free-school-meals-option-could-increase-food

  [3] http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/house-opposition-letter-sign-on-may-17-2016.pdf

  [4] http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2016/05/126489/#.V4OpsqJqPHA

  [5] https://www.cbo.gov/publication/51756

  [6] http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2016/05/126489/#.V4OpsqJqPHA

  [7] http://edworkforce.house.gov/uploadedfiles/bill_summary_-_improving_child_nutrition_and_education_act.pdf

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

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