Lots for Congress to do when members return to the capital. The must-do list includes some measure to keep funds flowing to programs covered by the Child Nutrition Act, since it’s due to expire at the end of September.
Work is already underway to renew the CNA for the usual five years. House members and Senators have introduced more than a dozen bills they hope will shape the final product.
A somewhat selective preview then of what we can hope to see — and what we might see that shouldn’t be hoped for.
More Free Summer Meals
The Food Research and Action Center has, for some years now, tracked low-income school-age children’s participation in summer meal programs.
The latest rate is somewhat better than recent past rates, but still indicates that only about one in six children who received free or reduced-price school lunches in 2013-14 also got free mid-day meals during the peak month for summer meal programs.
Many reasons for this. One is built into the law — a limit on where community-based organizations may serve summer meals without paying the full cost. They’re eligible for reimbursements only if they’re in an area where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.
This is especially problematic in rural communities — and probably a growing number of suburbs — where there are pockets of poverty in the midst of better-off areas.
The Summer Meals Act would lower the so-called area eligibility standard to 40%. This is the standard already used to target Title I education funds for low-income and other disadvantaged children, as well as the newer standard that enables schools to serve free meals to all students.
There’d be some grant funds to get more children in rural communities to summer meal sites — or summer meals to them directly via specially-outfitted trucks.
The bill would also eliminate duplicative paperwork, which may deter some nonprofits and public agencies from participating. And it would allow all summer meal sites, instead of only some camps and sites serving primarily migrant children to serve three subsidized meals a day, rather than only two.
Cash-Like Benefits to Fill the Summer Meal Gap
Another bill takes a different, complementary approach to the risk of hunger that increases when summer rolls round.
The Stop Summer Hunger Act would partly compensate low-income parents for the extra they often have to spend on food during the summer months, when they may have to feed their children three meals a day — and like as not do, though perhaps only by skimping on food for themselves.
Families with children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals would get electronic benefits cards, like the cards now used in SNAP (the food stamp program).
The cards would pay for $150 in foods and beverages next summer — more in later years to reflect increases in the reimbursement rates that partially offset the costs of the meals schools serve.
Better Meals for More Kids in Day Care
The Child and Adult Care Food Program, as its name suggests, subsidizes meals and/or snacks that childcare providers, adult day care centers and certain other programs, e.g., Head Start, serve.
By far and away the largest number fed are children — about 3.5 million a day in Fiscal Year 2013, FRAC reports.
The Access to Healthy Food for Young Children Act would make several changes similar to those proposed in the Summer Meals Act.
It would lower the area eligibility standard for providers who care for children in their homes. It would also enable providers to serve three subsidized meals to children they care for eight hours a day.
And very importantly, it would increase reimbursement rates, which are now so low as to deter participation in the program and/or serving optimally healthful meals and snacks.
Not much of a boost proposed — just 10 cents per meal. But the bill would also provide some additional funding to offset the costs of complying with the updated nutrition standards the U.S. Department of Agriculture will soon issue.
Let Them Eat Cake
On the downside, we find dubious concessions to the School Nutrition Association, which purports to represent many millions of the school personnel responsible for planning and supervising the preparation of school meals.
The Association contends, as it has for some time, that the current nutrition standards for subsidized meals are unworkable.
Basically, they call for more fruits and veggies, “whole grain rich” bread, pizza crust and the like, low-fat or nonfat milk, less sodium and saturated fats, virtually no added trans fats and age-based limits on calories per week.
Meals that comply cost too much, the School Nutrition Association says. And schools lose more money because kids who can buy their meals elsewhere do — or bring them from home.
Those who do go to the cafeteria won’t eat what’s served. So food — and the federal money that subsidizes it — are wasted.
USDA and others have rebutted most of these arguments, as a FRAC summary indicates. But the Association has tapped favorite themes in the Republicans’ playbook — waste in federal programs and “one-size-fits-all” regulations that cramp needed flexibility.
So we see bills that would prohibit USDA from administering or enforcing major components of the meal standards. The Healthy Meals Flexibility Act would roll back the “whole grain rich” requirement to what it was before the update and free schools from any effort to reduce sodium.
A companion bill would go further toward reducing federal mandates, as its title indicates. It would also effectively eliminate both the maximum calorie limits and the minimum-maximum ranges for grains of any sort, meat and meat alternatives.
I don’t know enough to assess every jot and tittle of the school meal standards. And I don’t doubt that some schools have found compliance challenging.
But the real issue the attacks on the standards raise is whether meals our taxpayer dollars subsidize should reflect the best current scientific judgments on the makeup of a well-balanced diet for children — and thus the foods they’re introduced to and the eating habits they develop.
This is especially critical, I think, for low-income children, whose parents may have neither the financial resources nor the time to serve healthful meals at home or fix them to put into backpacks.
In any event, we’ll soon have new Dietary Guidelines for Americans. So it would seem sensible for Congress to again require USDA to update the standards, so far as necessary.
Far better than to preempt any enforcement of requirements adapted from recommendation of top-flight, disinterested experts.