House Panel Approves Contentious Child Nutrition Bill
A House committee on Wednesday advanced by voice vote a child nutrition reauthorization bill that could reduce access to free meals for low-income students and test a pilot program in three states that would fund school meals with a block grant.By Ellyn Ferguson, CQ Roll Call
A House committee on Wednesday advanced by voice vote a child nutrition reauthorization bill that could reduce access to free meals for low-income students and test a pilot program in three states that would fund school meals with a block grant.
The Education and the Workforce Committee, however, rejected another Republican proposal to convert the federal school lunch and breakfast program to a five-year block grant.
Along the way, the amended bill (HR 5003) by Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., chairman of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood and Elementary and Secondary Education, lost the support of the School Nutrition Association, which had backed some of the Republican provisions.
The association withdrew its support for the bill after the final 20-14 vote, issuing a statement that it now strongly opposes the bill because of the block grant pilot project and changes that could reduce the number of high-poverty schools that qualify to provide schoolwide free breakfasts and lunches.
“Although the House bill provides a much appreciated and necessary increase to federal reimbursements for school breakfast, portions of the bill will cause irreparable harm to federal school meal programs,” said Jean Ronnei, president of the association that represents school meal providers and their suppliers.
The pilot program would not be subject to all current nutrition requirements and federal rules. Republican lawmakers argued that the block grants would give participating school districts a set amount of money to run their school meal programs and flexibility in operating those programs.
The proposed bill would reauthorize child nutrition programs and put policies in place that supersede those set by a now-expired 2010 law (PL 111-296).
The association's rejection of the overall bill is significant because it had backed easing some policies set under the 2010 law and championed by first lady Michelle Obama as a way to provide healthier meals to students.
The committee’s daylong markup showcased differing views between the panel’s Republicans and Democrats about how large a role the federal government should play in setting policies and operating child nutrition programs.
Democrats said the government offered a helping hand so low-income families could feed their children, while some Republicans worried aloud that the helping hand discouraged parents from taking responsibility for getting their children fed.
While the vote fell along party lines, Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., was the only Republican to vote against the legislation. Earlier in the day, Brat had offered and withdrawn an amendment to block grant the school lunch and breakfast programs and repeal the underlying federal laws that created the meal programs and several smaller food programs.
The committee also rejected an amendment by Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., that would have block granted the programs to the states for five years. Grothman said his proposal was an effort to return control to local authorities and parents. He said the programs as currently structured, with the federal government controlling the money and setting policies, “ooze contempt” for local government.
Chairman John Kline, R-Mich., urged the committee to reject the Grothman amendment, noting that a substitute amendment by Rokita to the original bill would create a three-state block grant pilot program that would allow experimentation and the vetting of new ideas. The panel rejected the Grothman proposal 9-25.
The committee by voice vote adopted Rokita’s substitute amendment as amended, which included technical changes and the pilot program. The substitute amendment became the final bill that was voted.
Under the proposed bill, a school would need 60 percent of students to be poor enough to merit free meals for all students. The current policy sets the threshold at 40 percent to provide schoolwide free meals.
Committee Republicans say the 40 percent threshold subsidizes some children whose families could afford to pay a portion or all of the cost of meals. Students who are from families poor enough to qualify on their own for no-cost meals could still qualify for free meals if they go through the certification process on their own, the committee said.
Committee Democrats registered their opposition to the bill with a series of amendments, most of which were defeated.
An amendment by Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, to delete the 60 percent threshold was rejected on an 11-21 vote.
Some Republicans thought 60 percent was too low a threshold, but they did not command a majority. The committee defeated a Grothman amendment that would have pushed the community eligibility threshold to 80 percent on an 8-25 vote.
Ranking Democrat Robert C. Scott of Virginia lost a voice vote on an amendment to name the bill the Hunger Games Act of 2016 after the movie series, but he said the goal was to underscore his party’s dissatisfaction.
Kline did not say when the bill might go to the House floor.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said she hoped the bill undergoes further revision. The Agriculture Committee approved a bipartisan child nutrition bill in January that makes modest changes to policies under the 2010 law.
“This issue is too important for political gamesmanship,” Stabenow, D-Mich., said in a written statement. “I hope House Republicans will reconsider this approach and work with us to pass a bipartisan bill that moves these critical programs forward.”