Correcting the Record on Child Nutrition

May 16, 2016 Issues: Education

When it comes to helping students succeed, there are few things more basic than making sure they eat and eat healthily at school. This is usually, and rightfully, the job of every parent. However, when lawmakers determine that a family is too poor to do so, taxpayers step in. As Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, my committee has the responsibility to review the reach and efficacy of federal government student meal assistance programs.

Despite being seriously mischaracterized by partisan attacks, the “Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016” 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.

Rather than heed calls to continue and improve these services, a Democrat-led Congress significantly expanded the federal role in child nutrition. The result? A wave of federal rules and mandates that made it even harder for schools to meet the nutritional needs of children.

These heavy-handed reforms are expected to increase school costs by more than $3 billion—an enormous amount of money that schools simply cannot afford. At the same time, overall student participation has declined more rapidly than any other time in the past 30 years. Equally troubling are concerns from nonpartisan government watchdogs regarding the waste, fraud, and abuse in these programs.

Opponents have asserted that our plan would be a step backward in terms of providing for students in need. Our bill in no way alters the eligibility requirements for students who receive free or reduced priced lunches. Again: not one student currently eligible for meal assistance would be ineligible under this proposal. And unlike our Democratic President’s recent bathroom edicts for schools, no money will be cut off for our poorest schools.

The current rules for the Community Eligibility Program (CEP) are perverse, as they incentivize schools to be paid for giving out meals to all students, even to those whose families can or do pay for their kids’ lunches. Under current law, a school can be reimbursed by taxpayers for offering meal assistance to every student even if just a mere 40% are eligible. This means that schools can have taxpayers pay for every meal in a school even when a majority of students are not even eligible for assistance. By increasing that requirement to 60%, we at least make sure that a small majority of students actually qualify for the taxpayer-subsidized meal, before taxpayers pay for all students to receive them. This is hardly an unreasonable or unfair threshold, and is consistent with other policies affecting the school lunch program. And we should all be mindful of smarter ways to do things when we are faced with $19 trillion in federal debt, a number that is only increasing.

We then use the savings from the CEP reforms to fund the other improvements in the proposal so they don’t add to the debt. Contrary to the inaccurate claims that breakfast assistance would be hurt, our bill actually provides a higher reimbursement for breakfast – a rate that hasn’t been adjusted since the 1980’s! We would also use funds to better access to summer meals, making it easier for poor students to receive nutrition even when school is not in session. We also stop several  school lunch "standards" championed by Mrs. Obama that only have resulted in food being thrown away.

Ensuring that students in actual need have these strong protections in place is how we the people should judge our success, not by how much paperwork an administrator has to do or how much money a school can make off of the entire school population. In a recent post in The Hill, Robert Doar, the former commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, agreed, saying “The House bill tightens CEP...  While there has been pushback by Democrats who worry that eligible children will not be able to access the program, facts show that the difficulty of applying for the program has been exaggerated…”  

My goal has been, and always will be, to help families rise out of needing government assistance. It’s not surprising that those opposed to the bill have long championed federal control over the health and well-being of our children. They oppose the bill because they know it takes power out of Washington and puts it back in the hands of those in our local communities.

Unfortunately, those attacking this bill don’t approve when we can do all of this without spending more of your money.