Fewer kids could receive free school meals under House bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fewer students would receive free and reduced-price meals at school under legislation that Republicans pushed through a House committee Wednesday.

On a vote of 20-14, the Education and Workforce Committee backed the bill, which would scale back the number of schools in which all students receive free or reduced-price meals. The measure would allow a trial period of so-called block grants for school meals in three states — meaning those states would no longer receive unlimited federal dollars for students who qualify for the free and reduced-price lunches, and states wouldn’t have to follow most federal nutrition standards.

The legislation, which the full House will consider, would also roll back some healthier school nutrition rules championed by first lady Michelle Obama. Some schools say they are too restrictive and the healthier meals are not appetizing enough to students.

Republicans, including bill sponsor Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana and committee chairman John Kline of Minnesota, said the changes would help redirect money to other programs while ensuring that those with the highest need are still guaranteed meals.

Hunger and nutrition advocates from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the American Heart Association sharply criticized the legislation, saying it could mean that some children go hungry at school.

“The bill would significantly weaken access to healthy, nutritious foods for our nation’s children,” said Dr. Benard Dreyer, president of the pediatrics group.

The block grant provision, added by amendment in Wednesday’s committee meeting, even prompted opposition from the School Nutrition Association, which has called for major changes in the school meal standards put in place in recent years.

The group, which represents school nutrition directors and the companies that sell food to schools, called the block grant idea “reckless” and said it would be a first step toward eliminating the federal guarantee that all children have access to the nutrition they need at school.

The block grants “are an opening salvo in an aggressive, alarming attack on the future of school meals,” said Jean Ronnei, head of that group.

The bill would raise the threshold for a government program called community eligibility, in which schools in districts with high poverty rates can provide free meals to all students at the school.

Republicans said it would better target taxpayer money by scaling back free meals for the some of the students that attend those high-poverty schools, but don’t individually qualify for free or reduced meals. They noted that the bill provides an increase in federal reimbursements for school breakfasts.

“This is hardly unreasonable and it’s hardly unfair,” said Rokita.

The bill would allow a wider variety of foods to be sold in lunch lines, an attempt to provide flexibility to schools that have complained that the Obama administration’s standards are too strict. Nutrition advocates said that move could allow some kids to skirt the nutrition standards.

Democrats objected to the efforts to save money on school meals and to loosen the nutrition standards. Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the panel, said the bill would “cut budgets instead of feeding our children.”

The partisan split on the House panel was in contrast to a bipartisan Senate compromise. With the support of Democrats, the GOP-led Senate Agriculture Committee passed legislation in January that would ease requirements for whole grains in school meals and delay a deadline to cut sodium levels, among other changes. The House bill goes much further.

The Obama administration’s healthier school meal rules have been phased in since 2012 and set fat, sugar and sodium limits on foods in the lunch line and beyond. They require more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Schools have long been required to follow government nutrition rules if they accept federal reimbursements for free and reduced-price meals for low-income students, but the new standards are stricter.

Congressman Bobby Scott, member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, released the following statement:

“Our work to reauthorize our child nutrition programs presents a great opportunity to continue to improve the way children eat, to expand their access to nutritious meals, and to end the child hunger crisis in our country.”

“We’re never going to get there by walking away from successful policies that benefit vulnerable children and families. Speaker Ryan promised ‘bold action’ to increase opportunity for low-income Americans. Limiting access to healthy meals for our nation’s most vulnerable children is certainly not the ‘bold action’ working families need or deserve from Congress.

I urge my colleagues to join House Democrats in fighting for policies that level the playing field and promote real opportunity for our nation’s families.”

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