House begins child nutrition reauthorization, but no schedule yet
March 14, 2019
The House Education & Labor Committee began the process of reauthorizing the child nutrition programs today, but House Education & Labor Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., declined to say how soon the committee would move forward with a bill.
After a Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee hearing today, Scott told reporters that the committee is "working" on child nutrition reauthorization but is also working on a range of other issues.
Scott said he hoped to achieve bipartisan support for a bill but when a reporter asked if the committee would move forward on it this year, he asked if the reporter meant this year or "this session."
The child nutrition programs, which include school meals, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children known as WIC and other smaller programs, were last authorized under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act that was championed by then First Lady Michelle Obama.
The law made school meals healthier and contained a small increase in federal reimbursement to the schools to make up for the increased cost.
Child nutrition programs are reauthorized on a five-year schedule. The law expired in 2015, but has continued under appropriations bills. The Trump administration has rolled back a few Obama era regulations, including requirements on whole-grain rich foods, no-fat milk and the professional standards required for school food service directors.
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Scott acknowledged that his staff has met with the staff of the Senate Agriculture Committee to discuss child nutrition legislation, and said the fact that the Senate committee had passed a bipartisan bill in the last Congress gave him hope that a bipartisan bill could be achieved in both chambers.
That Senate bill did not move forward because the House Education & the Workforce Committee, as it was called when the Republicans controlled the House, insisted on including a school lunch block grant pilot in the bill and Democrats in both the House and Senate said they would not support it. Nutrition advocates also opposed it.
At the hearing today, longtime conflicts between Democrats and Republicans over nutrition standards and regulations in the school meals programs were evident, but with the Democrats in the House majority and the Senate in general continuing to support higher nutrition standards, it appears likely that the House and Senate could reach agreement.
Witnesses invited by the Democrats talked about the importance of higher nutrition standards while the lone Republican witness, Cheryl Johnson, the director of child nutrition and wellness in the Kansas Department of Education, said she favored moving from a waiver system under which schools can ask USDA for relief from standards they are having a hard time meeting to flexibility in those standards.
But Donna Martin, the director of school nutrition programs in Burke County, Ga., who was a key player in nutrition in the Obama era, said that higher nutrition standards can be achieved and students can be convinced to eat healthier foods if schools put in the effort and make the foods tasty.
Martin gave the committee members bags of whole grain-rich grits that have been manufactured for her school by a local firm. She noted that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said that students reject grits with black specks but Martin said the grits she brought are a favorite of her students when they are prepared properly.
At the end of the hearing, Scott noted that Republicans have said students are throwing away the healthier foods because they don't like them, but he agreed with Martin that the students will eat the healthier foods if they are prepared properly.
Martin and Johnson both said that they believed the decline in school lunch participation had not been due to the changes in the foods, but to a provision in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act that said the schools could no longer use the money for children who get free and reduced price lunches to keep the prices for middle-class children lower. When school lunch costs $3 and there are four children in the family, some parents say they can no longer afford to buy school lunch, Martin said.
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., the subcommittee chair, noted that a proposal in Trump's budget would reduce the number of schools which could get community eligibility to give all children a free school lunch, and that under this provision roughly 1.3 million children would go without free school meals.
Nutrition advocates have said that community eligibility has eliminated the problem of students talking about other students being so poor they are eligible for free and reduced price lunches.
But Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., who chaired the House Agriculture child nutrition subcommittee in the last Congress, said he believes such concerns can be addressed by using electronic benefit transfer cards that are used in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program so that no child will "stand out." Thompson noted that his wife was on WIC when she was pregnant with their first child.
Eduardo Ochoa, a general pediatrician practicing at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock and a principal investigator with Children's HealthWatch, testified to the importance of the programs.
"In my clinic, I see firsthand the difference these programs make for children and their families,̦Ochoa said.
"I see the relief on a mother's face when we can provide a grocery bag, or when our financial counselor can walk a father through a SNAP application," Ochoa said.
"The staff in our clinics have been moved to tears when the data on food insecurity among our patients and families is presented to them. Our teachers at Head Start know the difference Monday morning breakfast makes to children that may have missed meals over the weekend. I look forward to working with you to ensure that these vital programs are best able to serve children and support their healthy growth and development."