There’s a food fight shaping up on Capitol Hill, and some of America’s most economically and nutritionally vulnerable kids are caught in the crosshairs.
On one side, you have House Republicans who in April introduced the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016, a bill that reauthorizes many of the programs serving under-nourished children, but includes some significant changes as well. Notably, the bill adds stricter eligibility guidelines for schools wishing to offer low-income students free and reduced lunches and relaxes some nutrition standards for school meals. Food insecurity affects more than one in five—a staggering 15.3 million—children, some of whom receive up to 60 percent of their daily calories at school.
On the other side, Democrats and a who’s who of national nutrition and anti-poverty groups—including Feeding America and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC)—say “the ill-considered provisions in this bill would roll back years of progress” on childhood nutrition.
“Countless children would no longer be able to access the nutritious meals they need for their health and learning, and the meals children could still obtain would be less healthy,” continued a strongly worded statement from FRAC after details of the bill emerged.
Here are a few specific reasons these groups oppose the new bill:
1. Fewer schools will be able to offer universal meals to low-income students
Increased paperwork, stricter eligibility guidelines, and limited outreach to families who might qualify for programs will make free lunch more difficult to find for kids in need. For a few years now, the bureaucracy around districts qualifying for universal free and reduced lunch has been quite low, allowing more children to be fed at school at a low cost to districts. This bill, according to critics, changes that.
2. It's not really doing anything to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches
This bill doesn't move any closer to reducing sodium levels or increasing the number of whole grains included in meals, two provisions critics say are crucial to keeping school lunches healthy. It would also allow schools to sell unhealthy snacks for school fundraisers or as a la carte menu items.
3. It doesn't help expand access to healthy food for hungry kids outside of school
The bill includes only small increases in funding for summer and after school programs. As Feeding America CEO Diana Aviv pointed out, the modest changes are “inadequate to meet the scale of need,” as is the expansion to a successful program that allows poor families to buy nutritious food directly from corner stores during the summer using their EBT cards.
The groups acknowledged that while the bill features a few encouraging provisions, it could not be supported as written because of the millions of low-income, food insecure kids it would leave behind.
“As the Senate demonstrated when passing its child nutrition bill in January, Congress can find bipartisan common ground to make good child nutrition programs even better,” Aviv wrote in a statement. “We remain committed to working with Committee members to improve areas of concern in this bill, and with all in Congress to ensure the passage of a strong child nutrition bill that ensures every child has the nutrition they need to grow, learn, and thrive.”
Photo credit: Alicia Cho