Picking up where I left off, the Senate Agriculture Committee’s new version of the Child Nutrition Act seeks to close — or at least, narrow — current gaps that can leave low-income children without enough nutritious food.
One opens every summer, when the school year ends. No more free meals five days a week. No more free snacks in after-school programs. And SNAP (food stamp) benefits don’t increase to cover a family’s extra costs.
Summer Hunger in the Child Nutrition Act
The CNA has a double-pronged approach to summer hunger. One prong allows schools that serve meals to kids in summer classes to tap their regular reimbursement source.
The other — the Summer Food Service Program — will reimburse schools, other government agencies and nonprofits for meals and/or snacks they serve at sites in low-income areas, i.e., those where at least half the kids are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.
All kids eat for free. So there’s not the same stigma some poor and near-poor children feel when they queue up in the cafeteria during the school year. And participating organizations may offer a variety of activities — sports, for example, or computer training — that attract kids, regardless of income.
The program nevertheless reaches only a fraction of children who benefit from free or reduced-price lunches during the school year — just 16.2% in 2014.
Various reasons for this — some more amenable to policy solutions than others. But the Senate Ag Committee clearly has considered what more federal policies might do.
What the Senate Agriculture Committee’s Bill Would Do
The bill goes at the summer hunger problem in three different ways. First, it would allow some sites to serve meals kids can eat at home, though the program usually requires “congregate feeding.”
That would help in rural areas, where sites are often widely scattered and hard to get to. Other communities with extremely high rates of poor and near-poor children could also opt for off-site meals, however.
The exception would also help prevent hunger when children can’t or won’t go to a site every day, as they usually do — when it’s extremely hot, for example.
Second, the bill takes a stab at simplifying administration for non-school sponsors that offer both after-school and summer programs. They now have to do all the paperwork for each separately and comply with two different sets of standards.
The bill would phase in a fused option, beginning with seven states in 2017 and in the far distant future covering all 50, plus the District of Columbia and other entities the law treats as states.
Third, the bill would create a limited option to the summer feeding program. States could issue electronic benefits transfer cards, loaded with $30 per month, per child to some parents.
Not all states could opt in, however. Nor could the states the U.S. Department of Agriculture chooses get enough cards for all kids who, for one reason or another, don’t get fed through a site-based program.
The bill restricts the option to states in compliance with a provision in the prior CNA that requires them to use EBT cards for WIC, instead of paper coupons by 2020. The Food Research and Action Center understands this to mean that states must have converted to the cards.*
Only 15 reportedly had, as of last October. But the option wouldn’t kick in until 2018. When it did, only a fraction of potentially eligible children would benefit — 235,000 then and 50,000 more in 2020.
Some of you may recall a bill introduced last year that would have made the summer EBT card option available nationwide and given families significantly more money for food — five times as much initially.
As I remarked at the time, the offset the bill proposed virtually assured it would go nowhere. And the felt need for an offset may account for the stripped down version we see now.
Much as we might like to see something akin to the earlier proposal, we know the gain could have come at a high cost, especially because the Senate Ag Committee apparently felt it had to find the pay-for within the food assistance area.
When Congress last reauthorized the CNA, it paid for nearly half the additional costs by curtailing the SNAP boost that was part of the Recovery Act. That, plus an earlier pay-for cut benefits for all recipients, including about 22 million children.
We perhaps then shouldn’t feel too disgruntled at the limited steps toward ending summer hunger. As with the broader subsidies to feed children in daycare, a step forward now could mean another step in the future.
One of those hope springeth eternal moments for this blog. The new CNA bill has quite a ways to go before it can have any effect on child nutrition. And, of course, we’ve no idea how the next Congress to look at the issues will net out. Still ….
* FRAC has been extensively and intensively involved in the reauthorization process. So we can, I think, feel confident that this is what the drafter intend.