Senate’s Child Nutrition Act Update Needs a Fix

I’d thought we’d have a new Child Nutrition Act by now. If not that, a bill that had passed in the Senate and needed only a House majority vote. We’re close — and with a bill that has promising features. (See my summaries here and here.)

But one provision has hung up the Senate vote. It may seem highly technical. But it’s more because the current version could deny free school meals to some children who sorely need them.

The provision aims to strengthen the process school districts must use to ensure that only poor and near-poor children get their meals free or at very low cost.

As things stand now, they must verify the family incomes of 3,000 of the applications they’ve approved — or 3% if that’s less.

The revised version would establish a sliding scale, generally beginning at 10,000 or 10% and ratcheting down to the current minimum, based on several performance measures, e.g., a very high percent of applications that confirm children’s eligibility.

A sticking point, as you might imagine, is the sheer number of applications school districts must begin with. Another, however, is that the bill enlarges the pool from which they must be pulled to include families that don’t have to apply in order for their kids to get free meals.

Children whose families receive SNAP (food stamp) and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits are categorically eligible. In other worse, they quality automatically. School districts would have to include some of them in their sample.

Other very low-income children also qualify automatically — those in foster care or migrant families, those in Head Start, a comparable state-funded program or a federally-funded program for runaways and those who are homeless, according to the definition that applies to public school students.

These children may also get swept into the verification pool. But schools may not be able to get all their parents to verify their incomes. The families may have no fixed address, for example — highly likely for the homeless and migrant. They may not have phone service either.

Parents who receive the verification request may not read English well enough to understand it — or even well enough to understand they must get someone to help because their kids otherwise won’t get fed.

But if schools don’t receive the required income proof, they can’t continue serving them free meals.

And that’s not all. Children — and all their family members — could also lose out on meals during the summer, when school isn’t in session.

The new CNA would allow states to provide low-income parents with $30 a month to partly compensate for their higher food costs during the summer. But only parents of children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals could qualify.

So if they didn’t pass the income-eligibility screening, they’d have to come up with the total cost of feeding their kids during the summer, unless they could rely on one of the regular summer meal programs.

Many can’t, for various reasons — and even fewer for the whole of the summer vacation. So what the bill gives with one hand, it would take away with the other.

Now, this is a problem that the Senate Agriculture Committee can resolve. Its chair and the most senior Democratic member work well together. The other members generally do too. They unanimously agreed on the bill we now have.

And we’ve no reason to believe that any of them wanted to take meals away from the very disadvantaged children at risk.

The Committee did, however, assume that the ramped-up verification process would find more children ineligible — and thus free up funds that would otherwise have to subsidize their free and reduced-price meals.

Those funds are already committed to provisions that would better ensure well-nourished children — the summer food benefit, among them.

And the Congressional Budget Office has already delivered a cost estimate that could cause some Senators to balk — not to mention the Republican majority in the House. That’s the heart of the hang-up, I understand.

Start tinkering with the verification requirements and (perish the thought) fewer children lose their free or very low-cost breakfasts, lunches and maybe even after-school snacks.

Well, we won’t have a new CNA before we have a new Congress. The clock is ticking toward the end of the session. And members won’t be in Washington for much of it.

They’ll presumably be preoccupied with must-pass bills when they briefly return after the elections — another spending measure to prevent a government shutdown, for example. So the Ag Committee has time for a fix that won’t harm low-income families.

No telling what will happen then. The House committee responsible for the CNA has produced an alarmingly different bill, though, at this point, not much different verification requirements.

So if the House passes the committee bill, negotiators might agree on them, especially if the Senate bill remains as-is. But they’d face much bigger challenges reaching agreement on the rest.

So the CNA might still go yet another year — or more — without reauthorization. Yet one can hope for a better outcome because the Senate bill would do more to deliver on the current law’s promise of “healthy, hunger-free children.”

That better outcome begins with the Senate’s passing a bill that doesn’t cause some of the most likely to be hungry and thus unhealthy to lose the free meals they get now.

Doesn’t end there, as I suggested. But it’s still the best way forward now.


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