The Senate Agriculture Committee passes a bipartisan bill to reauthorize child nutrition programs through 2020. The bill includes an expansion of the summer meals program.
The legislation, “Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016,” reforms and reauthorizes child nutrition programs under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966.
The bill the Senate committee passed will give schools much of the flexibility they’ve been asking for. For instance, schools will get more leeway in transitioning to whole grain products. The compromise stipulates that 20% of grains served can fall short of the whole-grain standard.
But, the bill would protect the new school meal nutrition standards that are improving children’s health and the school nutrition environment. It directs USDA to revise whole grain and sodium standards with the expectation that USDA will require 80% of grains served to be whole grain rich and that the implementation of the next sodium target will be delayed by two years. This provision continues to move sodium reduction forward, as supported by the science, and keeps the majority of the whole grains standard intact.
The bill would also establish an advisory panel on competitive foods and create an interagency workgroup on maximizing the value of the increased fruits and vegetables in school meals.
The bill would:
- Provide $30 million per year for school equipment grants and establishes a loan program.
- Set aside $10 million per year (up from $5 million per year) in Farm to School grants and allows institutions operating the Summer Food Service Program and Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) to apply for the funding in addition to schools.
- Replace the requirement that schools increase their school lunch fees gradually each year if the fee is below the free lunch reimbursement rate with a requirement that districts provide non-federal revenue, which can include school lunch fees and other sources of funds, to cover that difference.
- Fund USDA’s Team Nutrition program to provide training and technical assistance to school food and other child nutrition program operators.
- Authorize the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program with added exemptions.
Under the bill, the process by which information in families’ school meal applications is verified is completely redesigned. In an effort to strengthen program integrity, the percentage of school meal applications required to be verified is shifted to a sliding scale starting at a floor of 3% and extending to a ceiling of 10% of applications. By meeting certain state and district level criteria, school districts may be able to reduce the verification percentage requirement to the minimum level of 3%.
The pool from which verified applications are drawn is now broadened to include directly certified and categorically eligible students such as homeless, runaway, migrant or foster children or those enrolled in Head Start. Schools implementing the Community Eligibility Provision will not be subject to verification requirements.
Advocates worry that increasing verification requirements will inevitably cause some eligible students to lose access to free or reduced price school meals. One of the primary ways that students currently lose school meal benefits is failure to respond to follow-up requests for additional income information. Oftentimes, families do not respond because the request fails to reach their current address or communications are not conducted in the primary language of the household, advocates said. Under the proposed framework, the number of applications to be verified may increase significantly for some school districts. With such steep increases in verification, a disproportionate amount of vulnerable families such as those who are homeless, migrant, immigrant and have limited English proficiency may lose access to school meals for which they are eligible, advocates said.
The bill would allow Summer Food sponsors that are not schools to provide meals and snacks to children after school during the school year through the Summer Food Service Program. This will allow sponsors to operate one program rather than two, and significantly reduce duplicative paperwork and confusing administrative rules. The option is phased in over time beginning with seven states in 2017, growing to 10 in 2018, to 12 in 2019, and adding a state each subsequent year.
It would also offer low-income an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card with funds to purchase certain foods at retail stores. It also sets a cap on the number of children that can be served nationwide, beginning with 235,000 children in 2018, 260,000 in 2019 and 285,000 by 2020.
It would fund six state pilot programs to provide a third meal during the summer, but funding for the pilots would need to be appropriated. It would reauthorize the Community Child Nutrition Snack Pilot (CCNSP), which allows sponsors in California to serve snacks during the school year and meals during the summer months or during year-round schools’ extended breaks without needing to complete additional paperwork.
The bill would also:
- Allow the option of an additional snack for children in care for nine or more hours a day.
- Simplify eligibility for proprietary (for-profit) child care centers by extending the length of certification periods.
- Reduce administratively burdensome paperwork for parents, providers and sponsors.
- Require USDA to encourage CACFP institutions to engage with state agencies, school districts and schools to access donated commodity foods.
The bill came out of the committee with unanimous support and Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) told reporters that he may try to pass it on the Senate floor with unanimous consent. The broad congressional support for the reauthorization of the child nutrition programs reflects the long-standing tradition of bipartisanship that has surrounded these efforts for decades. In general, lawmakers agree these programs work to ensure healthy outcomes and greater educational attainment for our nation’s children.