House committee advances school meal bill

Partisan politics win out in House bill that diverges significantly from bipartisan bill Senate passed on child nutrition.

The House Committee on Education & the Workforce advanced its child nutrition funding bill out of committee on a 20-14 vote Wednesday. Unlike the widely bipartisan Senate version, the House has seemed to take a more partisan approach and has even distanced itself from the desires of the School Nutrition Assn. (SNA).

Introduced by Rep. Todd Rokita (R., Ind.), the legislation reauthorizes and reforms federal child nutrition programs to ensure that states and schools have the flexibility they need to provide children with access to healthy meals without additional or prohibitive costs.

A variety of child nutrition programs currently assist states, schools and other institutions as they serve children and families in need. Republicans tried to make deeper changes since the last time the bill was passed, when Democrats were in control.

“This is a major step forward in making sure an appropriate safety net exists and that the First Lady Michelle Obama-inspired nutrition standards are revised so that school food is more edible,” Rokita said.

“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,” SNA president Jean Ronnei warned.

Notably, the bill establishes a block grant pilot project in three states that will cut funds for school meal programs and nullify crucial federal mandates, including student eligibility rules for free and reduced-price meals and nutrition standards.

“The block grant pilot is the opening salvo in an aggressive, alarming attack on the future of school meals,” Ronnei said. “The provision opens the door to a broader effort to block grant school meal programs nationwide.”

During the markup, the committee accepted a number of Republican and Democrat amendments, including an amendment offered by Reps. Joe Courtney (D., Conn.) and G.T. Thompson (R., Pa.) that would give schools more flexibility in purchasing milk for students.

The amendment was welcomed by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) for taking an important step toward reversing the decline in school milk consumption by asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to examine how to ensure that kids are getting enough milk. Jim Mulhern, NMPF president and chief executive officer, added, “By better aligning the school lunch program with the dietary guidelines, options including 1% flavored milk will be back on the lunch tray in school cafeterias as a result of this legislation.”

SNA said Congress must come together to pass a bipartisan child nutrition reauthorization bill that provides that additional funding for school meal programs and includes the Senate agreement on school nutrition standards.

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) said child nutrition historically has not been a partisan issue, and it remains that way in the Senate. “I'm disappointed that House Republicans ignored nearly every group involved in child nutrition — from school foodservice directors to parents and pediatricians to more than 600 retired generals and admirals — to produce a bill that goes backwards on nutrition and food access for America's children. This issue is too important for political gamesmanship. I hope House Republicans will reconsider this approach and work with us to pass a bipartisan bill that moves these critical programs forward."

Tom Stenzel, president of The United Fresh Producer Assn., said the House markup did nothing to advance any realistic chance of passing reauthorization in 2016. “We urge leaders of the House of Representatives to recognize that this bill has little chance of passing and instead encourage members to begin the real work of discussing a bipartisan compromise that might best serve children in the years ahead. Thoughtful people who want to see child nutrition reauthorization in 2016 need to find the compromises that will achieve that goal.”

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