Congress Has Limited Time to Pass Joint Child Nutrition Reauthorization

In April, Representative Todd Rokita (R-IN), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education of the full House Education and Workforce Committee, introduced H.R. 5003, also known as the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016.

Introduction of H.R. 5003, more commonly referred to as the House of Representatives’ version of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), is a crucial step forward in reauthorizing vital childhood nutrition programs. School lunch programs, WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), and USDA’s Farm to School Grant Program are included. Farm to School helps connect schools and students to local farmers and ranchers in ways that provide students fresh, local food and helps them to learn about food production, nutrition, and much more.

The House Education and Workforce Committee has jurisdiction over CNR in the House, while the Senate Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction in the Senate. In January, the Senate Agriculture Committee marked-up and unanimously passed their version of the CNR, the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016. The process in the Senate has stalled, however, as the Senate Ag Committee works to ensure changes to child nutrition programs will be projected to have a neutral impact on program cost projections.

While the picture of what happens next with child nutrition in Congress remains cloudy, we are hearing the House Education and Workforce Committee would like to move the bill to the floor by the end of May. This means that committee work and markup of the bill could occur as early as next week.

path to a new child nutrition act infograph

Source: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

The Center for Rural Affairs was pleased to see the House bill includes strong support for the Farm to School Grant Program, including an increase from $5 million to $10 million in annual funding for grants provided under the program. The Senate bill includes a similar increase.

This increase is much needed. Demand for farm to school grants has dramatically outstripped available funding. Only 20% of applicants were awarded grant funding from 2012 - the inaugural year of the program - and 2015.

According to analysis by our friends at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the House CNR contains several crucial, positive changes to the Farm to School Grant Program, including the following from Section 109 of Title I of H.R. 5003.

Doubles Funding for Farm to School Grant Program – The bill doubles mandatory, annual funding (from $5 to $10 million) for the grant program. This increase will make it possible for nearly 3 million additional students nationwide to access farm to school programs each year.

Expands Access for Eligible Applicants – In addition to local school districts, the bill provides flexibility for preschools, summer food service program sites, and after-school programs to participate in the Farm to School Grant Program.

Increases Opportunities for All Producers – The bill includes increased outreach to beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. It also enhances access to farm-fresh and culturally significant foods for tribal schools and feeding programs.

Reduces Regulatory Barriers – In order promote increased farmer participation in farm to school, the bill calls on USDA to explore ways to reduce regulatory barriers to farm to school sales.

We are pleased by the House CNR’s support for farm to school programs, but we are also concerned that many in the anti-hunger and child nutrition communities are unhappy with other elements of the legislation. Overall, they predict major negative impacts on vulnerable youth populations.

For example, the House CNR would change the Community Eligibility Program (CEP), which allows schools in high-poverty areas to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students in the school, irrespective of family income. Anti-hunger advocates argue this provision helps schools save time and money by reducing paperwork and hours worked by administrative staff to determine eligibility, while improving healthy food access for students.

Currently, a school district, a group of schools in a district, or an individual school must have 40% or more “identified students” eligible for free school meals to qualify for CEP. H.R. 5003 would raise that threshold to 60%, potentially impacting over 7,000 schools nationally.

These proposed changes to CEP and other provisions in the House bill are the primary source of concern by the child hunger and nutrition communities. We encourage those who would like to learn more about the potential impacts of H.R. 5003 to look to the Pew Charitable Trusts Q&A on the contents of the bill. You’ll also find analysis of the bill’s provisions and their potential impacts at the The Food Research & Action Center, which strongly opposes the House bill. The House Education and Workforce Committee has also released a summary of the provisions within their proposed bill.

Lawmakers have limited time to pass a joint CNR. With strong opposition from most child hunger and nutrition advocates, the prospects of a new CNR being completed this year might be growing dimmer as time passes.

Sadly, failing to move legislation that both the House and Senate can agree upon during this legislative cycle will leave future funding for the Farm to School Grant Program on hold. It provides no resolution to myriad questions in the nutrition standard debate.