House Committee Child Nutrition Bill Creates New, Harmful Block Grant

Shortly before the House took yet another break, the Education and Workforce Committee passed a bill to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act. All Republicans, but one voting in favor. All Democrats against.

The Chairman, who drafted the bill, has styled it the “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act.” Let’s just say it wouldn’t. Unlike past CNA renewals and the bill awaiting final action by the Senate, it would do the opposite.

I’ve already noted how the bill — still then a draft — would deny many now-eligible schools the option of serving free meals to all their students. That’s just one of many concerns the Food Research and Action Center summarizes.

Top of its list is a provision the Chairman added to get his right-wingers on board. It’s yet another block grant — limited initially, but clearly an entering wedge, since it involves programs House Republicans haven’t sought to block grant for a very long time.

The bill would allow three states to receive a single funding stream for four child nutrition programs, including the school breakfast and lunch programs. They’d get the same amount of funding each year, regardless of what it would cost to continue serving free and reduced-price meals to all low-income children.

Their block grants seem, at first, whatever they received this year. But they’d almost surely get less because the bill excludes the extra six cents per lunch the current CNA provides when school districts meet the improved nutrition standards. All but tiny fraction do.

States would have a lot of flexibility, of course, because that’s Republicans’ big selling point for block grants. They could, for example, altogether disregard those nutrition standards, provided they served meals that were “healthy,” according to whatever standard they devised.

They could define eligibility for free and reduced-price meals however they chose. So perhaps all but the very poorest families would have to pay the reduced-price rates. And those could be far higher than the current rule allows — 40 cents per lunch and a dime less for breakfast.

They wouldn’t have to fund both breakfasts and lunches. They’d only have to ensure that children have “access” to one “affordable” (undefined) meal a day.

Now, it’s doubtful states would use their flexibility in all the worst ways they could. But as food costs rise and other costs that prepared meals entail, e.g., labor, utilities, they’d have to spend more of their own funds or cut other costs.

Hard to see how they could do the latter without denying children now eligible for free or reduced-price meals the same number of meals — and meals as truly affordable and healthful — as schools now provide.

And what about children who’d become eligible if the economy goes south? As things stand now, federal subsidies for school meals grow when more children get them at no or very little cost to their families.

But block grant states wouldn’t get a penny more, no matter how great the need. A further pressure then to ratchet down eligibility standards and/or cut back on meals.

Well, the Ed and Workforce bill won’t become the new Child Nutrition Act, even if the House passes it. So why should we concern ourselves?

First off, it could doom the Senate bill. The responsible committee there passed its bill unanimously, raising hopes of a fairly smooth glide path to a full Senate vote in favor.

Now some Republicans may fancy what they see in the House bill and insist on something similar. There goes the super-majority required for a substantive vote — perhaps even a plain majority.

If the Senate instead passes the bill its committee has crafted, then the task of developing a compromise version that both chambers will pass becomes even more difficult than it would have been without the late addition of the block grant.

So again, we’ll have another year without any changes in the CNA — perhaps not the worst thing, as you’ve gathered, but not the best one could realistically hope for either.

We should perhaps look at the latest block grant contender more broadly. It’s a sign — not the only one — that lead Republicans are trying to promote block grants as a key reform in the federal anti-poverty effort.

SNAP and Medicaid block grants have been standard features of House budget plans ever since Republicans gained a majority.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has teed up opportunity grants — basically, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families on steroids, as I said at the time. The anti-poverty agenda he’ll unveil next week will almost surely, at the very least, endorse “state flexibility funds,” aka block grants.

Meanwhile, his second-in-command aims to covert a block grant that’s now a limited experiment into a nationwide program. More on that soon. The big picture, however, is already clear.

The child nutrition block grant is a symptom of a multi-faceted effort to end the safety net as we know it, leaving states with the flexibility to undermine protections or use their own tax revenues to fill funding gaps.

Which, as we know, many won’t, even if they could. We’ve got more than enough evidence in TANF –the model Republicans still tout.

No one, I think, views all safety net and similar programs as perfect. Carefully tailored, limited experiments may surface improvements worth expanding — through reauthorizing laws, for example.

But the school meal programs generally do what they’re supposed to — reduce hunger, improve health and, for both reasons, enable low-income children to learn more in their classrooms. They wouldn’t if block-granted.

And Republicans on the Ed and Workforce Committee presumably know this, but care more about cutting federal spending — except, of course, for defense.

 

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