Last week, the Senate unanimously passed the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, a bill that would do just about everything to improve the school lunch program – except fund it. This is no small exception, considering that a tiny percentage of schools are currently able to follow the USDA’s nutrition regulations. How will they be able to comply with improved regulations with only six additional cents per lunch? And, although it passed in the Senate, the bill may still die on the House floor because some in Congress think even six cents is too much.
The school lunch debate has devolved entirely into a fight over the budget, and a rather disingenuous one at that. If members of Congress truly need to cut the budget somewhere in order to adequately fund healthy school lunches, they need not look further than the Pentagon. Representatives and Senators so love to fund weapons programs that provide jobs in their districts that they continue purchasing fighter jets even after the Pentagon begs them not to. (For example, the C-17, the F-35 engine, and the F-22.)
When it comes to budget politics, the Republicans, predictably, don’t want to give the Democrats a big win before the November election. The Democrats, on the other hand, seem to be on a political suicide mission. Barack Obama called for a moratorium on new spending in his last State of the Union, and Steny Hoyer, the Majority Leader in the House, is a well-known deficit hawk. The result is very little, if any, additional spending at a time when the economy could use some economic stimulus (i.e. spending). Failing to spend enough on school lunch is counterproductive for another reason: if we don’t spend now on healthy food, we will likely spend much, much more later treating a generation of children with diet-related health problems like diabetes. And we’ll pay for those health problems with lost quality of life in addition to money.
Even if progressive members of Congress like Rep. George Miller, who introduced the Child Nutrition bill in the House, want to pass a fantastic school lunch bill, they need to find a way to “pay for it” before it can come to the floor. As of now, the House bill seems to be stalled for that reason. (The Senate paid for its bill by cutting conservation and food stamps.) The question for child nutrition advocates is: Do we mount a campaign to get Congress to pass an underfunded bill? I would say yes. Budget politics, stupid as they are, don’t look likely to change soon. Let’s take the gains we’ve got in the current bills and then fight for the money in five years, when the bill comes up again.
The Senate and House bills basically send the message: “We care enough to prevent hunger, but not enough to prevent diabetes.” Both bills provide for direct certification, which means automatically enrolling kids for free or reduced cost lunches if they are also enrolled in other federal programs (like food stamps) that have the same enrollment requirements. This reduces the paperwork burdens for schools, allowing them to spend more on food and less on bureaucracy. It also helps enroll more children who qualify into the lunch program. Also terrific is the recognition by the government that in high poverty areas, it might be cheaper for a school to provide free lunch to all of the students instead of processing the paperwork for those who are eligible. In such cases, schools are given the option to extend free lunch to all students, expanding the number of hungry kids who receive meals while alleviating the stigma that might come with accepting a free lunch.
In addition to expanding access to the school lunch program, the bills pave the way for nutrition reforms. The newly funded Farm to School program is one way of bringing health foods into schools. The House version of the bill even includes a pilot program for serving organic food in school cafeterias. But, most importantly, these bills will finally give the USDA the authority to regulate all food sold on campus throughout the school day. For years the USDA has had little to no ability to regulate any food sold in schools outside of the federally reimbursable school lunch. That means that all manner of cookies, brownies, French fries, chips, candy bars, soda, you name it, are all allowed in schools. And, unfortunately, many schools rely on these junk food items to bring in much needed money to cover the costs of their lunch programs. This reform is one of the most important elements of the school lunch bill. (Of course, how strict the USDA regulations will be remains to be seen. All of the news about banning junk from school cafeterias are premature.) But, if the schools were relying on junk food for money, what will they do when the junk food goes away?
Sadly, much of the current problems in the school lunch program come right down to money. And money is the last thing this Congress wants to give it. Currently, schools receive about $2.68 for each free lunch served. Money is not only needed for healthy food, it is also needed for equipment, supplies, labor, and training. Reformers like Ann Cooper call for an additional $1.00. The more entrenched, corporate-friendly lobby, the School Nutrition Association, wants an additional $.35. The bills provide only $.06. Right now, it seems our best move is to push the House to pass this bill, take the reforms in it (some of which are literally decades overdue), and hope that we can fill in the other piece of the puzzle – the money – in a future, friendlier political climate.