May 18, 2016

On Wednesday, May 18, 2016, the House Education and Workforce Committee marked up and voted out of committee the “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016” (pdf). The bill now includes a three state school nutrition block grant demonstration provision that would eliminate the federal government’s commitment in those three states to providing nutritious breakfasts and lunches to low-income children at school and move the programs in a dangerous direction.

The Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) strongly opposes this bill. The other ill-considered provisions in this bill would roll back years of progress. Large numbers of low-income children would no longer be able to access the nutritious meals they need for their health and learning, and the meals children could still obtain would be less healthy.

As the reauthorization process moves forward, we will work with Congress to eliminate the provisions included in the House bill that are so harmful to children.

Summary of Provisions

Provisions of most serious concern included in the bill would:

School Meals

School Meal Block Grant

  • Block grant the school nutrition programs in three states. The block grant includes the School Breakfast Program, the National School Lunch Program, the Special Milk Program, and Team Nutrition. The funding would be capped and cannot exceed the amount a state received for the programs and administrative costs in fiscal year 2016. The funding for school breakfast and lunch is limited to the free and reduced-price reimbursements received, but specifically excludes the additional six cents per lunch provided to schools in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 for meeting the new federal nutrition standards. The states would have broad discretion in implementing the proposal, including: determining which children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals and how they are determined eligible, length or time of year that meals are provided, and the nutrition standards of the meals served (meals are only required to be “healthy”). There would be no requirement to provide breakfast and lunch, but states would have to ensure that one meal is accessible for children. States would apply to be included. The demonstration would run for three years, with the option of renewing for an additional three years.

Community Eligibility

  • Significantly weaken the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Community eligibility is a federal option in its second year of nationwide implementation that reduces administrative work and increases school lunch and breakfast access in high-poverty schools. The bill proposes to reduce substantially the number of high-poverty schools that are eligible to implement community eligibility, which would affect approximately 7,000 of the 18,000 schools currently participating in the program. An additional 11,000 schools not currently participating would lose the option to implement community eligibility in future years.

School Meal Application Process

  • Increase verification requirements. The bill dramatically increases school meal application verification requirements in ways that inevitably would cause eligible students to lose access to free or reduced-price school meals. Under the proposal, the number of household applications to be verified would increase significantly for many school districts, creating paperwork burdens for schools and families. A disproportionate number of vulnerable families, such as those who are homeless, migrant, immigrant or have limited English proficiency, would fall through the cracks in the process and lose access to school meals even though they are eligible.
  • Interfere with school districts’ ability to conduct effective outreach to enroll families eligible for free and reduced-price meals. The bill prohibits school districts from including the eligibility requirements for school meals on the school meal applications. It also limits to twice per year the number of times that schools can ask families to fill out applications. This would reduce the number of eligible children applying for school meals and particularly impact the many working poor families who become eligible during the school year due to fluctuations in income.

School Nutrition Standards

  • Significantly curtail USDA’s autonomy in establishing the regulations and requirements necessary for the effective administration of health-promoting child nutrition programs.
  • Significantly weaken evidence-based school nutrition standards for meals by continuing to delay the full implementation of the sodium standard and limiting the whole grain requirements. It would also require USDA to review and revise the school meals rules every three years.
  • Weaken new rules around snacks and beverages (Smart Snacks) sold in schools by allowing an exemption for foods sold as part of school fundraisers and expanding the options allowed to be purchased outside of the meals (a la carte items).

Child and Adult Care Food Program

  • Fail to meet the needs for children in care for long hours. The House bill does not reflect the provision included in the Senate bill that allows child care centers and homes the option of serving an additional snack to children in care for long hours.

Summer Meals

  • Fail to address shortfalls in the summer food program. The “streamlining” provision does not allow nonprofit organizations and local government agencies (that are not schools) to operate the Summer Food Service Program year-round. Instead, sponsors could receive only the lower CACFP reimbursement rate, and fewer sites would be eligible to qualify for streamlining. The Summer EBT provision also would have a limited impact: only eight states (Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, and Washington) and the Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations are eligible to participate and the funding is capped at $10 million. The original bill was amended to allow Summer EBT to be redeemed at SNAP or WIC retailers.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

  • Fail to take the opportunity to expand access to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. It also would create barriers to the efficient operation of the program, including provisions that would weaken cost-saving measures and would undermine the science-based WIC food package.

Other concerning provisions included in the bill:

Child and Adult Care Food Program

  • Unnecessary and duplicative annual budget reporting requirements are created for sponsors.
  • A problematic new requirement is created for all CACFP programs, whereby any “findings,” or errors they have been cited for, would be turned over to Health and Human Services (HHS). This could have a chilling effect on CACFP participation because it forces State CACFP agencies – and, in some cases, sponsoring organizations of afterschool programs and family child care homes – to report all findings, regardless of magnitude, to other agencies in the state.
  • Eliminates CACFP start-up and expansion funds, which support the development of quality child care with good nutrition through CACFP in rural and low-income areas.

Summer Meals

  • A demonstration project is created in four states (to be chosen by USDA through a competitive process) to allow local for-profit businesses to provide summer meals in underserved areas. Priority is given to those that partner with groups providing summer enrichment activities or provide congregate meals, but it is not requirement.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

  • The Comptroller General is required to conduct a study on WIC adjunctive eligibility.

Additional provisions included in the bill:

School Meals

  • School breakfast reimbursement is increased by $0.02 per breakfast in school year 2018–2019. That amount will increase to $0.03 per breakfast in school year 2020–2021.
  • $30 million per year is allocated for school equipment grants, and a loan program for school equipment and infrastructure is established.
  • USDA’s Team Nutrition program is funded to provide training and technical assistance to school food and other child nutrition program operators.
  • Provides $475,000 in funds to be awarded by the secretary to assist state agencies in providing bottled water for up to 90 days (can be extended for an additional 90 days if risk persists) following a federally declared emergency or if the secretary determines there is a significant risk to children’s health.

Child and Adult Care Food Program

  • Eligibility is simplified for proprietary (for-profit) child care centers by permitting centers to certify eligibility every four months instead of every month.
  • A carry-over option of funds from year-to-year is provided for organizations sponsoring child care centers and afterschool programs in CACFP.
  • Paperwork is reduced for parents, providers and sponsors.
  • USDA is mandated to review the CACFP serious deficiency process (the process by which sponsors are cited for errors) and issue guidance, or as appropriate, regulations, to assure a clear and fair system.
  • Nutrition education is provided for parents and participants that will emphasize the relationship between nutrition, physical activity, and health.
  • USDA is directed to provide technical assistance on special dietary needs, including food allergies and religious restrictions.
  • USDA is required to encourage CACFP institutions to engage with state agencies, school districts and schools to access donated commodity foods.
  • Eligibility is expanded for CACFP to schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Residential Child Care Institutions.
  • “Legal guardian” is added, in addition to “parent,” as the recipients of easily accessible WIC outreach materials.

Summer Meals

  • The congregate program requirement is waived when operating summer meals in select rural or high-poverty areas, and when existing sites face severe weather or safety concerns.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

  • Investments are authorized for WIC MIS and EBT system development.
  • The importance of implementing EBT by the 2020 deadline is emphasized.
  • USDA is authorized to conduct pilot projects to test alternative certification, food delivery procedures, and service delivery methods.

The House bill moves away from the long-standing tradition of bipartisanship that has surrounded the child nutrition programs for decades and the universal recognition that these programs work – and work exceedingly well – to ensure healthy outcomes and greater educational attainment for our nation’s children.

We call on leaders of both parties in Congress and the White House to work together to legislate improvements to the child nutrition programs, not changes that will hurt children by reducing their access to nutritious meals, leaving them more hungry and less ready to learn.

The Senate Agriculture Committee – the committee of jurisdiction in the Senate – released its proposed child nutrition reauthorization bill, “The Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016” (pdf) this past January. The full Senate is expected to take up the bill this spring. To read FRAC’s full analysis of the Senate bill, click here.