The Senate Agriculture Committee forged a bipartisan agreement as it advanced a bill at a business meeting Wednesday morning to reauthorize child nutrition programs for five years. The programs, which had expired Sept. 30, govern the national school lunch and breakfast programs.
The committee unanimously reported out the bill, which now goes to the Senate floor for a debate and a vote. The whole-committee approach was touted in such a way that the bill wasn't even brought forward as a “chairman's mark” but instead as a “committee print” since it reflects the efforts of every member on the committee.
“This bipartisan legislation is a true compromise. Not everyone got everything they wanted, but a lot of folks have a lot to be happy about,” Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) said.
Folks from both sides of the aisle, as well as school nutrition, food and hunger groups, welcomed the proposal.
The legislation, first released Monday, contains a critical agreement that preserves strong standards to benefit students while easing regulatory mandates on school meal programs. The School Nutrition Assn. said it worked with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the White House and the Senate Agriculture Committee to address challenges including student participation declines, food waste and student cultural taste preferences.
Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) introduced a bill last year seeking permanent flexibility for schools to comply with the sodium and whole grain requirements. The final bipartisan package incorporates his legislation with regard to whole grains and sodium.
Among other key provisions, the bill establishes school equipment grants and loan assistance; and the return to a five year administrative review cycle, freeing up overburdened state agency staff to provide schools greater support and guidance. The bill also eases Paid Lunch Equity mandates, allowing more schools to maintain affordable meal prices for families, SNA said.
The bill includes a seamless summer meal pilot program, allowing schools to continue providing lunch and breakfast or a snack in the summer. The pilot will be rolled out in seven states the first year, three more the next year, two more the year after that, and then one more the next year for a total of 15 states by 2020.
The bill expands the Farm to School program to $10 million – up from $5 million – with another $10 million authorized for appropriations. The program connects producers with schools to support local food systems and help students learn about where their food comes from.
Lawmakers in both houses have limited time to pass a joint Child Nutrition Act reauthorization during this year because of elections. If a bill cannot be agreed upon in the current legislative cycle funding levels for farm to school and other child nutrition programs will remain stagnant.