House Committee Approves Rewrite of Federal School Meals Laws

On Wednesday (May 18), the U.S. House Committee on Education & the Workforce voted to advance a reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, the federal law governing school meals programs.  The version advanced by the House committee rolls back some of the healthy schools meal standards First Lady Michelle Obama has championed.  It was approved on a largely partisan 20 to 14 vote (one Republican and all Democrats voting against).

In January 2016, a competing Senate version was approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee. Progress on that version was temporarily stalled after a March 2016 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office found the bill, would increase the federal deficit by $1.1 billion, a problem since as so-called “pay-as-you-go” provisions apply to the bill.

With committee approval of HR 5003, both chambers of Congress now have committee-passed bills to reauthorize six major nutrition programs—including school breakfast and lunch, a hopeful sign that reauthorization may yet be completed during the current session of Congress.

The Child Nutrition Act (CNA), which governs school meal programs—including school breakfast and lunch—is overdue for reauthorization. Last reauthorized as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 six years ago, the CNA expired on September 30, 2015. School meal programs, however, continue to operate at the status quo levels as long as Congress continues to appropriate funds for the programs. (School meal programs are overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the Department of Education.)

Both the House and Senate bills take steps to: 1) increase flexibility for school districts; 2) increase stakeholder engagement (including school boards); and 3) enhance program integrity provisions.

Both bills increase stakeholder engagement – including by school boards – in policy and implementation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For example, both the House and Senate bills would establish a School Nutrition Advisory Committee (SNAC) to advise the Secretary, and the Committee would include a school board representative.

The House bill includes an additional provision for triennial (every three years) review of national standards, which must be based on sound science,  and a requirement to consult with school boards as part of the process.  Any resulting standards must reflect the needs of all students and not result in higher costs or fewer students being served. Further, the House bill includes an ESSA-like provision prohibiting the Secretary from establishing regulations or requirements not explicitly authorized by statute.

Among other changes to meal standards, the House version calls for sodium levels to stay where they are until scientific research shows a need for further reductions and for sodium and whole grain requirements to be reviewed by Sept. 30.  In addition, so-called “Smart Snacks” standards would no longer apply to fundraisers or any food ever sold as a part of a meal, including cookies and chips.

Proponents of the House bill argue the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 vastly expanded the federal role in child nutrition, introducing a host of new regulations that have led to higher costs for schools and fewer students being served.  They also argue that under the 2010 Act a wave of new federal rules and mandates under has imposed restrictions and costs on state and school leaders, making it more difficult to meet the nutritional needs of children and families.

Both bills include additional program integrity requirements – such as verification –  that enjoy bipartisan support in Congress. While not identical, both bills increase the percentage of applications that school food authorities would be required to verify for eligibility, from the current 3 percent to as much as 10 percent based on school performance and other factors. However, both bills also include a number of options to minimize the increase in verifications (called “drop downs”) to reduce the burden on schools and families.

Under current law, community eligibility provisions (CEP) allow schools and local educational agencies with high poverty rates (40% or more) to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students, effectively allowing federal dollars to subsidize students who are not otherwise eligible for assistance. Provisions in the House bill would  increase the poverty threshold for CEP from 40 percent to 60 percent and would direct savings from the CEP change to a reimbursement increase for the School Breakfast program.

To become law, both the House and Senate will have to pass identical versions of the reauthorization legislation, which suggests some compromises will have to be worked out, and the President will have to approve the version sent to him.